By Adam Roozen
“If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.” —Mao Zedong
We’ve all heard about and read about accountability. Many of us have studied it. I’ve studied it for the pure intention of applying my learnings to transition my teams to adopt accountability as a part of their team cultures. But like Mao Zedong so wisely observed, reading doesn’t quite prepare you to actually revolutionize your culture to incorporate accountability in a sustainable way.
Below are the phases an organization should go through to create a culture of accountability.
Phase 1: Desensitization
In this article (including the title), I’ve already used the word “accountability” six times. This is to desensitize you to the negative connotations you probably have of the word. For most people, those are six cringe-worthy syllables. We’ve all observed many people and organizations that avoid using the word. We hide behind redirects such as, “it’s an overused word,” “it’s perceived negatively,” and “it puts too much pressure on people.”
When you use this word, some people will be energized. Others will cringe and run for the hills. It’s a part of the process. The first phase of the revolution is to frequently speak about accountability in terms of its synonym—responsibility—to desensitize people to the fear they’ve built up over time.
Phase 2: Intention
As your team begins to learn that accountability is just responsibility in a scary mask, they’ll warm up to the word.
It’s time to declare your intention. Establish a culture of accountability to drive company performance, increase individual growth and make the company a more enjoyable place to work.
Make all three intentions clear. Clearly and concisely articulate your vision. Tell your team exactly what you expect so they can buy in and join you in the revolution.
Phase 3: Reflection
If you’ve lived in a culture that was not focused on accountability, chances are you are not a highly accountable person. You’re a product of the culture. You’re holding a “get out of jail free” card. By desensitizing everyone to “the word” and making your intentions clear, you’ve cashed it in.
All of a sudden, you’re the de facto role model. Envisioning something is not the same as doing something, and it definitely doesn’t feel like what we thought it would feel like. Envisioning breaking your arm does not prepare you for breaking your arm. Knowing you’ll need to endure some pain you haven’t previously endured, however, is an essential preparatory step. So, be prepared.
Plan to be honest with your team. Be open about the fact that you are excited for the challenge ahead, that you will fail at times, but that you’re committed to the revolution and will endure and persevere.
Phase 4: Pushback
So, we’ve desensitized people to “the word,” we’ve made intentions clearly known, and we’ve shown that we’re committed even though we’re not perfect. Clearly, it’s time to turn our words into action. Begin to speak in terms of “Tuesday at 5 p.m.” instead of “in a few days.” Begin to ask probing questions, eliminating the risk of ambiguity. Announce when people are overperforming and underperforming. People in your company will begin eradicating ambiguity in responsibilities so they can hold people—and be held—accountable.
Phase 5: Management
Generally, there are two types of issues in the workplace: those that can be fixed and those that cannot. An example of an issue that can be fixed is that of a leaky faucet. An example of an issue that cannot be fixed is that of someone’s mood. When you can’t fix an issue, you have to manage it. Improve the situation when you need to, back off when you don’t, and continuously monitor to know when to do either one.
Maintaining a culture of accountability is something that needs to be managed. If people slip into old habits, you can’t simply fix it and never look at it again.
Living and working in a culture of accountability feels fundamentally different than being in a culture of non-accountability. Once you’re there, you’ll feel the difference—and everyone else will, too.
Adam Roozen is CEO of Echidna Inc., a leading e-commerce agency, and he was previously an executive at the Walmart Home Office.
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