The Executive Mentor Blog

Four Tips for Building Accountability

Four Tips for Building Accountability

“Accountability” is a favourite word to invoke when the lack of it has become so apparent — such as with the global financial crisis early this century. It is also a loaded word and political football in major sectors crying out for reform, such as health care and public education. Who should get what data about doctor success rates, hospital effectiveness, student achievement, or school performance? What should be measured or tested, and what should be done with the data? Should doctor reimbursement be outcome-based, and what factors should be part of outcome measurement? Should teachers be held accountable for the academic success or failure of their students?

In the best companies, detailed performance metrics, benchmarks for comparison, and quantitative evaluations have become a way of life. People are expected to hold up a mirror to examine themselves and their teams. But accountability is still controversial in areas that the public cares about.

One reason that performance ratings are so threatening is that internal performance reviews are often done so badly. They’re often robotic annual bureaucratic exercises-even if the feedback comes from all levels in 360-degree fashion — to check off the boxes for salary purposes. In chronically poor-performing organizations, performance discussions don’t involve coaching about constructive actions for improvement, and managers don’t engage peers in reviewing performance data together to find solutions. Some managers are just as afraid to give feedback as staff are to receive it. Others use data for blame rather than improvement, turning performance reviews into weapons of persecution; it’s no wonder that people want to hide. But that doesn’t help anyone do a better job.

In contrast, high-performing organizations use information to help people improve, by giving people abundant, timely, and helpful data about their performance on a regular basis, individually and as a group. Here are some of the classic keys to ensuring that the mirror is not broken.

Ask questions; stress inquiry

We know that it helps to begin with agreement about goals and then to conduct an inquiry-oriented dialogue: Did you do this, did you try that, and what happened? Questions help people deconstruct the details of performance and consider alternatives without becoming defensive.

Create humiliation-free zones

Performance metrics and reviews should not be intended to “name and shame.” Leaders can provide safe havens in which dialogue can take place without making anyone feel put on the spot, and where difficult issues can be discussed without assigning blame. The goal is to solve problems, not to hurl accusations or tear people down. Creating such a positive climate calls for a matter-of-fact, objective manner: assume that people want to do the right thing and that data help them know what the right thing is.

Break big goals into specific elements

Analysing the details that accumulate to produce either failure or success can make it easier to identify steps for improvement — and also make it likely that people can feel proud of the things they already do well. The best performers pay attention to discrete actions rather than sweeping generalizations. This also makes it easier to find strengths as well as weaknesses.

Model accountability

It builds confidence in leaders when they name problems that everyone knows are there, put performance data on the table for everyone to see, and refuse to shift responsibility to some nameless “them.” When leaders accept responsibility (for example, by sharing their own performance ratings), it helps other people get over their fear of exposure and humiliation.

The tools of accountability — data, details, metrics, measurement, analyses, charts, tests, assessments, performance evaluations — are neutral. What matters is their interpretation, the manner of their use, and the culture that surrounds them. In declining organizations, use of these tools signals that people are watched too closely, not trusted, about to be punished. In successful organizations, they are vital tools that high achievers use to understand and improve performance regularly and rapidly.

Those afraid of performance scrutiny (a club that reaches beyond health care and education) will have to get over it. Transparency reigns. Data are increasingly easy to find, combine, and report. Improving internal performance discussions can pave the way for ongoing performance improvements. When data are aired for the whole world to see, the ratings will already be on a positive trajectory.

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