Creating a Culture of Accountability

Key ingredients include continuous feedback and explaining the "why" behind expectations

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Few people will question the importance of accountability in the workplace. Establishing it, however, is an entirely different matter.

But Scott Robley suggests it doesn’t have to be that complicated. All organizations have to do is create a culture of multi-directional, continuous feedback that addresses gaps between expectations and employee performance in a meaningful and intentional way.

“Continuous dialogue is the magical part of accountability,” says Robley, the director of professional services as well as a speaker, coach and master trainer at Crucial Learning ( “My colleague Joseph Grenny (a noted author and keynote speaker) always says you can measure the strength of an organization by the amount of time that a problem exists to the time someone speaks to it.

“If we create a culture of accountability and quickly address performance gaps … mid- and end-of-year reviews become celebrations instead of just announcements. When you see a gap, you need to close a gap. But the dialogue must be multi-directional so that we’re all accountable to each other, peer to peer.”

Moreover, organizations need to create a culture where these gaps can be candidly discussed in a safe way, he says.

Communicate intentions

Providing continuous feedback is more successful when employees know a manager’s intentions or motives — what Robley calls “the why.” (One of his favorite books is Start with Why: How Great Leaders inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.) For example, if employees know that a manager has high expectations because he or she wants to see them grow and excel — to shine when opportunities arise — feedback becomes much easier to accept.

“Sometimes feedback is hard because you’re focusing on what you’re going to say and anticipating how the recipient will accept it — will they get defensive about why they think you’re saying what you say,” Robley says. “So you have to make sure you have good intentions and that they understand those good intentions.

“When those intentions are well-communicated and understood, then feedback becomes natural and easy. Leadership is more than just managing job descriptions, it’s about leading people. That’s the higher purpose and it should always be your motive.”

How do managers create that kind of environment? By declaring it as a goal and remaining true to it, he says.

“How often do we say we want feedback and then when we get it, we blast it?” Robley asks. “You have to truly want it and declare it, as well as empower people by teaching them how to step up and do it in a safe and non-threatening way.

“Over the years, we’ve learned that the biggest challenge is that few people know how to properly provide feedback, so they either don’t say anything or do it poorly, which makes it even worse. If you’re feeling stuck and not getting results you want, it’s likely you’re either not having those crucial conversations or doing it poorly.”

Creating a culture

There are more strategies available to get employees to buy into the feedback/accountability loop. One is to use storytelling to help employees make connections between their jobs and the bigger-picture organizational mission, Robley says.

As an example, he cites a documented instance in the early 1960s when former President John F. Kennedy visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the first time. During his visit, he encountered a janitor carrying a broom down a hallway.

Kennedy stopped his tour to ask the man what he was doing. He replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

“He didn’t say he cleans toilets or mention other things in his job description,” Robley notes. “This shows how storytelling can connect people to an overall mission. And accountability becomes much easier.”

Too often, managers just blurt out data when talking about expectations and accountability, which isn’t a very compelling approach. But storytelling is a powerful way to weave accountability into that data — show employees the meaningful ways their job performance impacts their organization and its goals, he says.

“It taps into their personal motivations,” Robley says.

Aligning expectations

It’s also important to make sure managers’ and employees’ expectations align. If a manager believes there’s a gap between expectations and an employee’s performance, it’s imperative to be sure everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations.

“You first have to engage in dialogue because you may erroneously assume that the gap exists for various reasons,” Robley says. “You have to make sure you both see the gap the same way because if the employee isn’t clear on expectations, they may not see a gap in the first place.

“The best leaders engage the employee in the process — define the gap and talk about what’s causing it. It’s rarely just one thing. Then you need to collectively find a solution.”

It’s also helpful to mention when employees do good things, too.

“If you find yourself giving people the same feedback over and over again, so they’re feeling barraged, you also need to take time to recognize the good — be positive and acknowledge growth,” Robley says. “Sometimes batching or spacing feedback is a good thing. Start with those things that can have the greatest impact on improving an employee’s game.”

Training is crucial

In today’s turbulent workplace, accountability and continuous feedback may be more important to organizations than ever before. For instance, remote and hybrid positions add another layer of complexity to accountability.

“There are so many new dynamics involved,” Robley says. “Accessibility to remote employees can be more limited. And not only is it more limited, there’s also no casual conversations by the water cooler or in the cafeteria.”

As a result, virtual dialogue via email or texts becomes very formal. That, in turn, makes feedback harder and more intense than it would be if it was cushioned somewhat by normal, day-to-day personal workplace interactions.

“You can’t just step into someone’s office and have an immediate conversation,” Robley says. “Connections create safety, but they’re harder to maintain virtually.”

That makes it even more important for organizations to improve employees’ core feedback and dialogue skills — train them to intentionally and purposefully share their perspectives while allowing others to share theirs, too.

“If it isn’t done well, feedback can do a lot of damage,” Robley says. “We refer to it as the ‘hazardous half-minute,’ that first 30 seconds of feedback dialogue.

“Providing feedback takes skill and if you truly want to create a culture of dialogue and accountability, you need to invest in and enable your people with the right skills. It’s not enough to say we want to do this — organizations have to empower employees to do so. But it’s an investment that will generate a return greater than any monetary value.”


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