What To Do When People Are Not Being Held Accountable

A recent survey quoted in an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog highlighted that the single most avoided responsibility was holding people accountable.  In the survey of more than 5,400 upper-level managers from the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific gathered since 2010, 46% are rated “too little” on the item, “Holds people accountable — firm when they don’t deliver.  This result is consistent at all levels of management, and across all countries.

Why Is This?

There are a number of contributory reasons that I see for this, these include:

Lack of a Suitable Role Model – if accountability is not being enforced from the top, then how can the organization expect managers and leaders below to do so.

Fear of Being Unpopular – holding people accountable is a confrontational role and one which many people shy away from.  As such, regardless of the fact that you are acting within your rights and quite properly, there is a personal price you pay in terms of being seen by others in a negative light.

Circle of Avoidance – I have seen many companies keep people on who are well beyond their “use by” date.  What often happens is that a decision is made to deal with the non-performing individual in a non-accountable way to avoid confrontation.  This provides a precedent and makes it easier to repeat the decision when the problem re-occurs.

Dealing with the Symptom Not the Root Cause – often managers will deal with the problem at a superficial level.  Not wanting to probe further or ask “why” means that the problem is not properly addressed and continues to raise its ugly head again and again. This can develop into acceptance of the on-going situation as people get “injured” to it.

Being Held Accountable Without Consequences – for me, this is a major contributory factor.  Often when people are held accountable there is a distinct lack of accompanying consequences that are properly enforced.  This means that the system of being held accountable lacks discipline and backbone, undermining the whole process.

The Ringelmann Effect – here the decrease in average individual performance with increases in group size. It was named after a German psychologist, Ringelmann who studied groups pulling on a rope. He found that the average force for two persons was 93% of average individual force; the average force for three persons 85% of average individual force, and the average force for eight persons was only 49% of the average individual force essence individuals exert less effort when their efforts are combined than when they are considered individually.  This masks the lack of effort, and often group dynamics can mean that the group would rather “carry” the non-performing individual than making them accountable.

So What Can We Do?

At its essence, this is about changing people’s behavior which in turn drives your organization’s culture.

If you are working in an organization where accountability is weak then you have to bite the bullet and enforce it in a consistent and sustained fashion.  It will cause unrest, loss of popularity and even loss of staff – but if you don’t like that then you shouldn’t be in a leadership role.  You need to address the motivation for this, as well as ensuring that the relevant capabilities are in place.  We need to set the standards – establish, communicate them, and reinforce them by providing the necessary capabilities and tools so people can action the changes required.

Using Influence

The only way we can enable people to change their behaviors is to use our influence.  Influence is often thought of in a personal context, but there are other sources.  There are six sources of influence available to us, this shown below.

Source 1: Personal Motivation — work on connecting vital behaviors to intrinsic motives.

Source 2: Personal Ability — coach the specifics of each behavior through deliberate practice.

Source 3: Social Motivation — draw on the enormous power of social influence to both motivate and enable the target behaviors.

Source 4: Social Ability — people in a community will have to assist each other if they hope to succeed.

Source 5: Structural Motivation — attach appropriate reward structures to motivate people to pick up the vital behaviors.

Source 6: Structural Ability — ensure that systems, processes, reporting structures, visual cues and so forth support the vital behaviors.

Although organizations often look at trying to motivate people when influencing they tend to focus predominantly on sources 1 and 5 and developing the abilities to support the change are largely ignored or treated as a post-change aspect – rather than being integral to effecting the change successfully.

Overview of the Six Sources of Influence

So what do these influences mean if you are involved in creating a culture of accountability?  Let’s look at them in a little more detail.

1.  Make the Undesirable Desirable – if you can’t find a way to change a person’s intrinsic response to a behaviour—if you can’t make the right behaviors pleasurable and the wrong behaviors painful – you’ll have to make up for the motivational shortfall by relying on external incentives or possibly even punishments.

2.  Personal Ability– we often limit our success when we assume that any influence failure is exclusively a motivational problem.  This fundamental attribution error assumes that when people don’t change it is simply because they don’t want to change.  In doing this, we lose an enormous lever for change. Even when we realize people may lack the ability required to enact a vital behavior, we often underestimate the need to learn and actually practice that behavior.

3.  Harness Peer Pressure – when seeking influence tools that have an impact on profound and persistent problems, no resource is more powerful and accessible than the persuasion of the people who make up our social networks. The ridicule and praise, acceptance and rejection, approval and disapproval of our fellow beings can do more to assist or destroy our change efforts than almost any other source.

4.  Find Strength in Numbers – this is creating leverage and synergies by enabling different people, teams, departments and divisions to share their knowledge, insights, and experience in meeting dealing with, and achieving the necessary changes.

5.  Design Rewards & Demand Accountability – making use of extrinsic rewards can be complicated. Not every reward has its desired effect. Sometimes they can backfire and be counter-productive.  Accountability has to be clearly allocated and, to be effective, needs to be reinforced with consequences as appropriate.  Rewards need to focus on behaviors, not just results.  If rewards are mismanaged, they can be divisive and if accountability is not maintained then its absence can send out negative signals.

6. Change the Environment – this examines the nonhuman aspects, such as buildings, space, sound, sight etcetera can be brought to bear in an influence strategy.  For example, co-locating new teams, departments or key individuals; creating new corporate identities; how the environment can be used to highlight visible, timely and accurate information that supports their goals.

Utilizing a mix of these six sources of influence provides you with the opportunity to direct, engage and enable your staff to expect, for both themselves and others, accountability.

What will you do? What works for you?  Share your ideas, insights, and comments here!

Share the knowledge, share the wealth!


Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

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