By Carolin Gomulia

Accountability is often stated as one of the organisational values though it tends to evoke feelings of anxiety, dread, and avoidance in staff across all levels of an organisation. In our experience, accountability is not something to be feared. Rather, it is a broader term that goes beyond punitive measures and, when wielded correctly, can be implemented as a positive tool for change. We believe that authentic accountability means I, the individual, and we, the team, take responsibility for our actions to ensure our organisation performs at its best. Accountability becomes a reminder that we trust and respect each other, our professional standards and the vision of the organisation.

Helping clients implement accountability as a performance management and assessment tool has become an integral part of the work we do at MzN. Here we share some popular misconceptions about accountability, define and give examples of authentic accountability, explore what happens when it is lacking and give six practical tips for building authentically accountable organisations.

Some mistaken beliefs about accountability

While working with a number of clients, we repeatedly come across three major misconceptions about accountability that we believe need to be challenged.

  1. Accountability is not a form of punishment.
    Many people associate accountability with punishment rather than seeing it as a tool to help unlock potential and improve performance. When it is embraced at the individual, team and organisational level, it can become an effective means of pushing individuals out of professional comfort zones and opening up new opportunities.
  2. Accountability is not a one-off event.
    In some organisations, accountability is used as a one-off event – normally assessed during the annual performance review process or when something goes wrong – instead of an ongoing conversation between management and employees.
  3. Accountability does not only apply to employees.
    Accountability is a two-way street for both staff and management, a tool to promote honesty, delivery with excellence and have positive and constructive exchange about processes and performance.

When I worked as a manager, performance management reviews were an eye-opening experience. In our bi-weekly or monthly check-ins, the performance review conversations focused on development, growth and the ‘big picture’ of the team’s performance. In turn, I learned a lot as my team felt relaxed and was able to give me honest feedback which helped me to grow. I was able to apply this as a consultant working at MzN, now helping clients to introduce the same constructive feedback sessions and accountability measures into their organisations.

Now that we have addressed what accountability is not, we will explore what it is – that which we refer to as ‘authentic’ accountability.

Authentic accountability

Authentic accountability helps organisations become the best version of themselves. It means that there are informal and formal mechanisms in place to hold each other accountable, which in turn requires high levels of trust and transparency among teams. It encourages constructive criticism of each other’s work, provides a safe space for honest and clear feedback, and enables failure via experimentation while avoiding a blame culture.

Authentic accountability manifests itself in many  ways:

  • Being on time. If you cannot be on time, courtesy requires that we inform others.
  • Fulfilling commitments made to peers, supervisors, supervisees, management and stakeholders/donors.
  • Making room for failure. The room to innovate is stifled if failure is punished severely. Mistakes are therefore allowed. This is a hallmark of a learning organisation.
  • Learning how to admit and take responsibility for mistakes and misjudgments.
  • Simultaneously, being gracious when someone admits an error, creating an organisation that does not operate within a blame culture but rather encourages improvement.
  • Not pretending to have all the answers. “I don’t know” is not an admission of defeat, and “I don’t know, maybe we can figure it out together” is a recipe for authentic engagement.
  • Completing an assigned task to a high standard with minimal supervision because of an internally driven locus of control (holding oneself accountable).

What happens in organisations that lack authentic accountability?

Working with many clients and organisations, we have seen that a lack of accountability operates as a slow poison that ultimately permeates every process, system and staff member. Without accountability, leniency or lack of risk taking/innovation leads to mediocrity, which ultimately becomes the norm. This indifference then becomes exponential – an individual delay becomes a team delay, with further potential downstream effects.

In our experience, no accountability results in the ‘no big deal’ effect: for example, reports are submitted three days later than agreed upon, meetings start 10 minutes later than scheduled, monthly targets are missed, and sub-par work is accepted in the interest of getting it done. In short, mediocrity is normalised.

We have also experienced that organisations find endless ways to work around the issue of accountability by restructuring again and again (“let’s move the deck chairs”), working on organisational culture issues (“we just need to get along better”) or, in some extreme cases, even create whole new processes and programmes around the ones that are not working or have become completely ineffective (“building a new house on quicksand”).

There are, however, some organisations that have successfully tackled issues related to accountability. The following six points outline some practical tips on how to create an authentically accountable organisation.

Six tips for building authentically accountable organisations

  1. The first step is to name the elephant in the room by having frank and open conversations among the management team. Put formal and informal processes in place and start holding each other accountable within the management team.MzN can help in this regard. Sometimes it is easier for an outsider to facilitate a session with the senior management team in which accountability measures are discussed and agreed upon. Contact us for more information.
  2. Make ‘excellence in everything we do’ the managerial mantra and lead by example. Begin with seemingly menial things such as starting meetings on time and keeping deadlines. Role modelling accountability is the best way for others to learn. As a leader, take responsibility and own up when things go wrong or need to be improved, model giving feedback and constructive criticism, and accepting it in return.
  3. Once the management team is committed, get the rest of the team involved. Accountability cannot just be driven from the top down, but ideas and ways of implementing accountability measures should come from across the organisation. We recommend creating a working group consisting of members from all levels and layers of the organisation which sets targets, reports back at monthly meetings and ensures that accountability remains on the agenda.
  4. Talk about consequences and incentives. The incentives for compliance should be clear, as should the sanctions for non-compliance. They should be developed together with the team and not simply imposed by management. These should apply to everybody, whether they are staff or senior management, and must be enforced. For example, a coffee piggy bank for those arriving late to meetings could be a fun way of enforcing accountability rules. Performance outcomes (eg. monthly KPI reports or the decision from a donor) should be discussed routinely and openly, regardless of whether the result is considered a ‘success’.A serious way of addressing accountability is to facilitate an informal conversation with a staff member to call out where his/her accountability falls short, such as delivering on time or with the expected quality. If those behaviours persist, organisations should not be afraid to implement more serious measures such as written warnings. However, introducing a positive culture of accountability should make these more serious measures only necessary in exceptional circumstances.
  5. Think deeply about your performance management systems. How can the system become a tool of accountability, build ownership, trust and excellence on an ongoing basis instead of being an annually implemented ‘punishment or reward’ tool? Last year, for instance, we worked with a client who introduced a new digital tool for their performance management system that offers staff the option to give ongoing feedback on a range of tasks and peer reviews. At first, they were hesitant to adopt the system, but the organisation ultimately flourished as a result.
  6. To achieve higher levels of accountability in conjunction with high performance, consider empowerment. Empowering your staff means giving them access to information, the tools to perform their work at its best, and policies and practises that allow for true participation in decision making and constructive feedback. This means creating a supportive environment so that accountability is not only associated with a negative critique of performance but also with a positive way of reaching goals and objectives. Leaders in the organisation need to ensure that their teams feel heard and understood, that hard work and excellence is seen and acknowledged to make their employees feel empowered.MzN has helped many clients increase employee satisfaction within organisations by introducing new tools, assessing processes and improving communication flows to create more agile NGOs. This is often directly linked to increasing accountability within an organisation. Contact us for more information.

Due to the stigma attached to accountability, the fact that it is commonly viewed as a one-off performance assessment tool used to keep employees in check, it is not surprising that it is feared or altogether avoided. Yet we at MzN have seen the rewards of addressing and embracing authentic accountability. When approached openly and honestly, accountability can help improve your organisation’s performance, providing a safe environment for constructive feedback, calling one another higher while creating room for innovation and growth.

Though the management team might take the first steps in implementing and role modeling accountability measures, introducing incentives and consequences together with the team, and assessing pre-existing performance management systems, at the heart of accountability is recognising the responsibility each individual has in achieving their organisation’s mission. To create a sustainable culture of authentic accountability, it is therefore crucial to encourage empowerment and self-accountability. Remembering that other team members are dependent on your work and that your performance ultimately influences your organisation’s impact and the quality of its results should be a driving force in adopting accountability as a personal, rather than simply an organisational, value.