Accountability starts at the top
Harry Truman’s famous sign, given to him by a friend and avid poker player, remained on the President’s desk in the oval office through Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The saying is thought to have originated in poker, when the passing of a buckhorn knife indicated the dealer, but the “buck” could be passed if the player did not wish to deal.
President Truman, as a leader, was aware that leaders must hold themselves accountable before they can expect accountability from those they lead. Taking responsibility for one’s own decisions is, of course, the first step to others being responsible for the direction that those decisions lead. But how do we get every worker to feel that “the buck stops” on their own desk, instead of spending time and energy passing the buck?
It is common when we talk about accountability to envision this being external – someone “holding people accountable” usually means punishing them for failure. The meaning of the word itself, however, is more about internal or personal action: “the fact or condition of being able to give an account; responsibility.” The question for leaders is not so much how to hold people accountable, but how to enable them to give an account of their own actions. How can we do this?
Make expectations completely transparent. As W. E. Deming said when asked about leadership’s failure to take responsibility, “How could they know?” It’s impossible to feel responsible for goals and measures that you aren’t aware of; it’s very difficult to feel responsible for goals and measures when you don’t understand what purpose they serve. Expectations need to be clearly communicated as WHAT we need to do, HOW we need it done, and WHY it needs to be done that way.
Enable your people to succeed. Often our people are limited by the processes (or lack thereof) that they are executing more than they are limited by their skills or ability. The red bead experiment clearly demonstrates how ludicrous it is to try to hold people accountable for out-of-control processes. Leaders need to commit to the time and effort it will take to enable people to be successful by both streamlining the key processes and training effectively on those processes.
Recognize what motivates people (hint: it’s not slogans or posters). There are many studies illustrating that people are primarily motivated by intrinsic needs, such as pride in workmanship and working with others to achieve common goals. A number of different theories on motivation exist, but in general external motivations such as monetary reward are more tactical in nature. It’s important to build more strategic, internal motivations into the way the company operates. In order to enable folks to focus on “giving their own account” we need to realize that all our work gets done through people, and the great majority of people want to do their work well. We need to give them the structure, both in our production processes and in our personnel processes, to have autonomy and support in improving their work, and to excel at the things that motivate them to excel.
Undoubtedly it is important that there are consequences to failing to meet expectations that have been clearly defined, communicated and enabled through training and process support. However, punishment for failure to meet an objective that wasn’t clearly defined, communicated or enabled cannot result in an improved process or in meeting company goals. Much of the work of accountability is done through leadership and improvement of both organizational processes and production processes.