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Seven Ways to Make Sure Accountability Sticks in 2014

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As a leader at your organization, you like to think that you run a pretty tight ship. But if you’re being honest with yourself, you know that you let a few things slide in 2013. A missed deadline here and there. A few tiny white lies to clients. The fact that Mike in marketing often over-commits and under-delivers. Your own tendency to talk over others in meetings. In other words, people (you included) haven’t always done what they know they’re supposed to do or behaved like they know they’re supposed to behave—and they’ve gotten away with it.

None of these transgressions have been deal-breakers. Yet you know if you don’t start holding yourself and your employees accountable for these little things, they’ll eventually lead to bigger, more damaging sins. That’s why, according to Julie Miller and Brian Bedford, one of the best New Year’s resolutions you can make is around the A-word. Accountability.

“Accountability is a tricky business because it has different meanings for different people,” says Miller, coauthor along with Bedford of Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s the Fix?. “In our book, we present a definition we learned that we like very much: ‘a personal willingness, after the fact, to answer for the results of your behaviors and actions.’”

“With that in mind, think about where you and your people dropped the ball in 2013 in terms of client relations, personal integrity, and interactions with coworkers,” adds Bedford. “More important, did any of you answer for these lapses? You can post core values on the company website and remind your employees about them via the company newsletter until you’re blue in the face. But if none of you are ever held accountable to these behaviors, you’ll just repeat 2013’s transgressions over and over again.”

“Of course, you might be thinking, We’ve tried making accountability stick before, and all those initiatives just melted away over time. That’s what will happen this time,” says Bedford. “You can’t create an accountable organization in passing. Buy-in must come from everyone. Accountability must be woven into the fabric of your organization. It has to become a part of every aspect of your business.”

Here’s how an approach to this problem might look:

Conduct a 2013 accountability post-mortem. Here’s a revelation for you: Despite the accountability failures of 2013, it’s very possible that no one at your organization thinks they’re doing anything wrong. Maybe they’ve never actually been told that they need to change how they do things. That’s why Miller says you should kick off your 2014 accountability revolution with a meeting of the minds.

“Call your team together for an open discussion of the company’s core values and required behaviors and where you’ve dropped the ball,” she advises. “Explain that no one will get in trouble for acknowledging their own shortcomings or even pointing out those of others. Ask people to share the negative effects they believe these behaviors had on the business and explain that those negatives will only get worse with time.”

“Set the stage by taking responsibility for your own transgressions,” adds Bedford. “This will encourage others to be honest in turn. Finally, explain that things are going to be done differently in the upcoming year. Use this meeting to get consensus on what the core values and behaviors need to be to support the company’s strategies and goals for 2014, and emphasize that everyone, starting with the key leaders, will be held accountable for demonstrating them.”

Hold an accountability boot camp early in the year. However you go about making accountability stick at your organization, one thing is for sure: You and the other leaders at your company can’t simply decree an accountability mandate and then expect everyone to fall in line. You’ll need to implement a training and development plan to help employees understand why accountability is important and what accountable behavior looks like.

“A boot camp-style training session is a great way to achieve this,” says Bedford. “In these sessions you should also establish how their accountability mindset and behaviors will affect their pay and progression in the organization. Teach employees how to provide feedback to one another, since this is essential to developing a culture of accountability. For leaders, you’ll need specialized training and development programs that explain what accountability looks like for them and what they can do to be effective accountability role models. We’ve seen these kinds of programs work many times before. Through our consulting practice, we work with companies from around the world to tailor training plans specific to their needs—we don’t feel a standardized approach is as effective.”

Start with a behavior statement. Everyone needs to understand that they will be held responsible not only for the results of their work, but also for how they go about their work, and their rewards will depend on both. If your most experienced salesperson has great sales numbers but bullies the shipping department every time he/she needs an order rushed, or if you have an employee who clients love but who often misses internal targets, those transgressions must have consequences despite these employees’ successes in other areas.

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