Effective organizations know that accountability is a primary key to getting the results that are expected and therefore, success. Quite simply, people tend to focus on what is getting measured and this measurement serves to both motivate action and improve performance. To complicate matters, organizations that would not be described as "effective" also value accountability. They just don't value the same kind of accountability. Humans are hardwired with a sense of the value of accountability. From an early age, children often develop a hyper-sensitivity to justice. You might see them throw a temper tantrum over what they perceive to be "not fair." They also know what it means for someone to "get what they deserve." As we grow up and transition from the imaginary playground to our new bottom-line driven realities in the field or in the office, our language transitions as well, but the hardwiring remains. If we are not intentional, we risk missing the opportunity to become a part of an "Effective Organization" (or risk sounding childish). Our definition of accountability must mature along with us. Many people believe that accountability means to “punish” someone for failure. Punishment is only a minor part of the process and focusing on that minor part will limit your organization's exposure to the "grown up" benefits that result from a mature understanding of accountability.
So What is “Accountability” Anyway? It literally means “to account for ones actions” and therefore requires one to determine both “what” occurred (measurement) and “why” it occurred (cause). Effective organizational leaders know that the key to effective accountability is to understand “why” people do what they do and get the results that they get. Accordingly, they intentionally start the accountability process by determining “why” either success or failure occurred.
Effective organizational leaders understand that accountability is not an opportunity for “blame”, which is usually the result of someone committing the Fundamental Attribution Error, i.e., the tendency to attribute failure to personal characteristics such as motivation. They move beyond this type of error to evaluate the total context in which the person found themselves and therefore evaluate not only motivation, but also factors such as skill level, knowledge, peer and authority pressure, availability of resources or organizational systems such as policies and procedures. Only after a complete analysis has been done is causation determined and consequences delivered.
Positive & Negative Effective organizational leaders know that it is important to apply both positive and negative consequences as appropriate. They know that you strengthen desired behavior through the application of what psychologists call “reinforcement” and they use appropriate reinforcement for the level of success that has been observed. They also know that you weaken (reduce the chances of future reoccurrence) undesired behavior through the application of what psychologists refer to as “punishment” and they use appropriate punishment for the level of failure that has occurred.
"Do as I Say, Not as I Do?" Additionally, effective organizational leaders understand that they are being watched by organizational members to see if accountability is consistently applied across all organizational levels. Are they holding themselves accountable for their actions and results in the same manner that they are holding others accountable? Failure to show consistency in accountability (especially when punishment is called for) leads to a reduction in trust, morale and job satisfaction because it sends a mixed message to the organization. Leading by example helps to create trust, improved morale and job satisfaction and sets the stage for consistency throughout the organization.
What's the point?
Consistent, fair accountability, that is focused on fixing the causes of failure, is at the heart of organizational effectiveness.