Creating Accountability Without Creating Bureaucracy

Typical business practice has tried to achieve accountability using three methods…three methods that are doomed to failure because they are really doing the exact opposite of what you are trying to accomplish.

Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on a great webinar presented by the Association for Talent Development titled Creating a Culture of Accountability in Healthcare.  The webinar, presented by Michael Patterson of PSP and author of Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely of Places was a part of the Healthcare Community of Practice at ATD; a community that I am often disappointed in for a dearth of either new information or activity.  But every once in a while, they present something that is a true gem.  This webinar is one of them, mainly because it is not limited to the healthcare industry…it has cross-applicability across any sector and any business that seeks to create a culture of accountability.

Patterson started out the webinar by pointing out that the healthcare sector is involved in immense disruption at the moment, and noted that Aetna Health recently ran some round tables of healthcare executives to find their biggest challenges as they deal with the disruption.  The result of the round table discussions and post-round table survey was that 2/3 of management cited either cultural resistance to change within their organization or misalignment with physicians as their leading pain point.  This, Patterson says, is a leadership problem at heart, because leadership is responsible for both the running of the organization and promoting the type of culture they wish to see.  As such, he pointed out that learning and development professionals are in a unique position to help address this problem, as they are in the business of grooming the next generation of leaders.

Accountability comicWhat exactly do future leaders need to be trained on?  Patterson suggested a re-framing of the meaning behind the word accountability, which is often code for “I want people to take initiative and ownership of their decisions”.  Typical business practice has tried to achieve accountability using three methods…three methods that are doomed to failure because they are really doing the exact opposite of what you are trying to accomplish.

  1. Creating Additional Structures – This assumes that accountability comes from relationships and thus having to report your work to someone magically creates accountability.  This is demonstrably not the case, and only serves to complicate your organizational chart and explode the levels of bureaucracy one must navigate to get things done.
  2. Creating Additional Tasks – This assumes that accountability is created through the assignment and completion of additional tasks for employees.  Patterson points out this is often the approach found in Project Management: Break things into tasks and assign them to people…this will ensure accountability because we all know who is doing what.  Anyone who has ever worked on a group project at any level knows the folly in that line of thought.
  3. Creating Cause – This assumes that accountability is created within an organization by heaping praise on the high performers, and heaping scorn on those whose performance is underwhelming.  The idea is that this kind of praise-and-blame game will inspire accountability as people seek praise and avoid blame.  But this only serves to erode company culture, overwhelm your employees and create unnecessary tension.

None of these, Patterson argues, create an environment where employees take initiative and ownership of their work.  All you are doing is poisoning your culture, creating chaos in your org chart, muddying the waters of who is supposed to do what, and increasing levels of stress in the workplace.  This tends to be a self-feeding mechanism; the poorer performance that results means more metrics and measures are added to try to determine the problem causing the poor performance, and these metrics and measurements only bog down everything even more, as I discussed in a previous post about how productivity suffers in these kinds of environments.

motivationThe key, Patterson argues, is that you have to remember that accountability requires inspiration to take initiative and motivation to encourage employees to take ownership of their work.  You have to inspire and motivate, not measure and dictate from on high.  Inspiring and motivating your employees isn’t as simple as hanging up a couple of cheesy motivational posters in the break room, or bringing in  professional speakers who attempt to inspire and motivate with a combination of the fire-and-brimstone preacher and the empathy of a used car salesman.  In order to inspire and motivate your employees to take the initiative and ownership you are seeking, Patterson suggests keeping three key pieces of information in mind.

First, you need to unlock the power of each person’s strengths.  Strengths, he argues, are not things that you are naturally good at.  They are the methods that you choose to use in order to accomplish a given task, whether or not you are familiar with that task.  As a society, many think of strengths as being somewhat genetic…you are only good at a handful of things via natural talent, and that’s where you should focus your efforts.  But if you re-frame your thinking a bit and start thinking of strengths as the means you choose to accomplish any given task, you allow yourself the freedom to choose whatever you need to choose to get the job done.  This is where initiative is born, because you now have the freedom and creativity to be able to think about problems uniquely.

Second, you need to understand what motivates each person in your company, and how to increase that motivation.  Motivation is key because it is the difference between something being who you are and simply doing something because you were assigned to do it.  Patterson used the analogy of renting a car on a trip:  When is the last time you took the car through the car wash before returning it?  Most of us don’t do that, simply because we are renting the car…it’s not ours.  But our cars are a completely different story.  Are the employees within your organization acting like owners of it or simply renters?  If you have an organization of renters, it’s time to find out what motivates them and work to accommodate it.  For some it may be more money, for others it may be cross-training opportunities, for others it may be professional development or networking; but leaders must find out what will work for each employee and accommodate it to increase the employee’s motivation.

Lastly, you need to help your employees develop their accountability skills, which includes recognizing their own filters and learning how to make the most of the space between a given event and their response to it.  Having filters is not necessarily a bad thing, Patterson argues; after all it’s how our brains make sense of a chaotic and information-saturated world.  But in order to see things clearly, we need to acknowledge the existence of the filters and try to see what we may be missing because of them.

I think Michael Patterson is on the right track here, not only within healthcare but within any industry.  Accountability is not something that can be dictated from on high, no matter how many raises you give or how many pink slips you hand out.  It’s something that comes from within each employee, and thus needs to be the result of each employee’s decision to perform their job with accountability.

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