Accountability can sometimes seem abstract. But it hits us square in the face when we run into the Indispensible Tyrant, the Thunder Stealer, and the Chronic Latecomer. Each of them can drive us nuts, along with seven other unaccountable workplace types identified by consultants Julie Miller and Brian Bedford of Austin, Tex.
The husband-and-wife team, authors of the book Culture Without Accountability – WTF? (their abbreviation stands for "What's the fix?"), define accountability as the personal willingness to answer for your behaviour and actions.
The authors offer as an example a flight they took in which things went awry. After many delays and a change of aircraft, the flight had to be abandoned because the tail number on the plane didn't match the tail number on the paperwork. Instead of hiding in the cockpit and offering a curt explanation over the public address system, the pilot went to the middle of the plane, apologized, explained in detail what was wrong, and then walked the length of the aircraft, chatting with passengers.
We routinely encounter lack of accountability from our colleagues at work. Mr. Bedford points to one of the most dangerous: the Indispensable Tyrant, the individual who the boss relies on to bring in the sales to make the quarter's numbers but who treats everyone else in the office like dirt, screaming at them or tossing insults.
The boss may know or at least suspect this type of leader can be nasty, but lets the bad behaviour slide because of the mistaken belief that the Tyrant is "indispensable." Instead, the Tyrant must be held accountable for bad behaviour, and given feedback. "His job is not to bring home the bacon but to uphold the values of the organization," Mr. Bedford said. "If you can't fix it, you must bite the bullet and get rid of him."
Ms. Miller's pet peeve is the Thunder Stealer, who loves to take credit for someone else's work. The result is that the folks actually responsible for the meritorious deeds feel devalued, and don't work as hard, or leave. Often, Mr. Bedford notes, the Thunder Stealer is male. Again, feedback is required, and better behaviour must be taught.
Mr. Bedford also cites the Chronic Latecomer, who waltzes into a meeting after everyone has arrived and expects to be brought up to date on what has been missed or even resume discussion of items that were settled in his or her absence. Latecomers seem to feel they are more important than anyone else and can do anything they please. If they are supervisors and actually have more power, their bad behaviour has to be grudgingly tolerated, but it is better when possible to confront the Chronic Latecomer and seek change.
To build a culture of accountability in your organization, the duo suggest a four-step process:
1. Share your idea of accountability
Develop a short elevator speech that you can share with staff about why accountability is important (the problem it solves), what needs to be done differently, and what benefits will accrue. "What's the real motivation? Why is this worth doing?" Ms. Miller said. "Changing culture is next to impossible. It takes a lot of focus and stick-to-it-ness."
2. Bring accountability to life
Develop statements indicating how people behave in a culture of accountability. This might include: Always do what you say you will; if you are going to miss a commitment, communicate that as soon as you can to all who need to know; take responsibility for your mistakes as well as your successes; and always tell the truth.
In addition, develop a list of dos and don'ts that indicate exactly how colleagues should operate. Things to do might include being open, honest, and truthful; raising issues with appropriate people; and recommending solutions to problems. Among the don'ts: Don't blame others; don't make excuses; and don't hope someone else will bring up a problem.
3. Weave it into everything
Review all your processes, from recruiting to performance management to customer service, and make sure they reinforce the notion of accountability. For example, in job interviews, probe how accountable the candidates are. Accountability behaviour statements and the dos and don'ts might be added to performance reviews. "Accountability can't be a standalone activity. It needs to be integrated into all the systems," Mr. Bedford said.
4. Set an example
More difficult is for leaders to demonstrate the behaviour that they want others to adopt. This is where change initiatives fall apart. "Employees are cynics, and they're suspicious, often rightly, of the fine words they see and hear. They're always watching and waiting for any sign that proves leadership isn't really on board with all the accountability culture stuff," Ms. Miller and Mr. Bedford note in their book. "If they see the disconnect, your culture initiative will be dead in the water."
Showing the way also means providing feedback to those who aren't acting in an accountable way, including the Indispensable Tyrant, the Thunder Stealer, and the Chronic Latecomer.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter
(Editor's note: An earlier online version of this column incorrectly titled a book by consultants Julie Miller and Brian Bedford as Culture Without Responsibility – WTF? The correct title is Culture Without Accountability – WTF?