Wouldn’t it be great if employees always chose to do the right thing—even when no one’s watching? That’s one of the benefits of a truly functional accountability system. And yet, establishing accountability is one of the toughest tasks for companies to get right. A survey of 5,400 upper-level managers, for example, found that 46 percent did “too little” to hold people accountable.
For nearly all safety systems, accountability is crucial for reducing risk. To learn how to design an effective accountability system, we spoke to organizational psychologist and leadership management consultant Scott Paine. Paine, who has worked with Qualcomm Inc., San Diego Gas & Electric, CareFusion, and Kaiser Permanente, shared key lessons from his work helping companies build accountability systems and cultures that support them.
Internal and external consistency
It helps to think of accountability as having two components: internal and external. External accountability encompasses the commitments we make to others—co-workers, supervisors, or institutions. Internal accountability is about the commitments we make to ourselves, Paine explained.
For accountability systems to work smoothly, the values of external accountability systems should match with the internal values of its employees. “Then it becomes about the commitment we make to others to contribute to a culture where we can all be our best,” Paine said.
Aligning the internal values of the individual with the external values of the company, leadership, and co-workers is no small task. Read on to get Paine’s advice on how you can accomplish this.
Connection to the cause
Once aligned, values work best when they’re connected to a greater cause. Without a cause, accountability systems become compliance tools that don’t tap into internal values and motivations that yield more lasting commitments.
“To get people to buy into something, they need to feel like they are contributing to something larger, that they are part of something bigger,” Paine said.
In this case, safety systems have a built-in advantage in that nearly everyone wants to go home safely and injury-free each day. Some companies take that cause further by consciously creating a broader family metaphor, where everyone looks out for one another. Other companies integrate enhanced health and fitness programs in order to further the value of worker safety and well-being.
Culture of personal growth
Accountability systems can only be effective if workers can own their mistakes without fear of retribution, learn from them, and improve, Paine said. That means creating a culture of personal growth and learning that allows people to be vulnerable.
“If people can’t be vulnerable, it leads to a fear-based culture” where employees are afraid to admit their errors, he said. “When you have a fear-based culture, no accountability system will work. It’s crucial that you have an environment that allows people to be vulnerable.”
This is important for two reasons. The first is that behaviors are more likely to be corrected if they’re caught early. The second is that delaying a tough conversation can build anxiety for the coach or supervisor.
“The longer you wait, the more emotionally charged it becomes, and the more off-center you become,” Paine said. For tips on how to pull of difficult coaching sessions with your drivers, read this quick guide.
Nearly all managers feel they do a great job of communicating goals and expectations. But the reality is that many of them are not getting through to their workers, Paine said. It’s not that managers are delusional—it’s just that many workers are uncomfortable telling bosses they disagree or that they don’t understand.
How do managers know if they are being understood? Simple, Paine said. Just ask employees. Possible questions include:
- What do you think about these goals?
- Are they realistic?
- What do you see are the obstacles for us to make this goal?
- Is there something there that I as a manager don’t see?
- How can we get around those obstacles?
Without those conversations, it’s just a monologue, Paine said.
One of the most effective techniques to connect individual actions with broader accountability systems is storytelling, Paine advised. Here, the stories can come from fellow drivers about how they were able to get home safely because they followed proper evasive maneuvers or because they had built enough distance between themselves and other vehicles to effectively avoid a collision.
Stories can be punctuated with video to drive the point home. With the DriveCam program, these videos are often labeled “unavoidable near collisions.” These clips often show that the driver has done something to avert an accident. Sharing and celebrating those stories can help reinforce a sense of accountability at both the individual and the collective level.
The role of consequences
Conventional wisdom is that accountability systems don’t work if there are no consequences. This is true to an extent, Paine concurred. However, incurring negative consequences should be a last resort. As a performance management tool, consequences will manage behavior, he said, but it falls short of developing that internal sense of accountability that governs what workers do when no one’s watching.
Hiring for accountability
One of the trickiest tasks is to determine whether someone you are about to hire will be accountable. That’s because candidates will nearly always say what they think you want to hear in order to land the job. Short of reinventing the hiring process, Paine suggests a two-part strategy you can use to divine how accountable your candidate will likely be.
The first is to pose a “what if” scenario, Paine said. Draw the scenario from a dilemma your own workers face. For example, it’s 30 minutes before your shift is over and you are about to make your last delivery of the day when your check engine light comes on. What do you do? The question should present a scenario that has no clear right or wrong answer, but rather probes what candidate would do and what values they would prioritize (in this case, customer service, safety, or their desire to clock out on time).
The second part is to ask the candidate to describe a mistake they’ve made in the past. Ask how they handled it. Gently probe for details.
“What you want to hear is whether they owned their mistake, or if they tried to shift blame on other people or on external circumstances,” Paine said. “You also want to hear what they learned from their mistake and if they grew from the experience.”
Those who can’t admit fault and learn valuable lessons from their mistakes are less likely to be open to coaching and more likely to feel wary of accountability systems.