Why accountability matters

A lack of accountability can affect morale and lead to disastrous results. How can organizations foster a culture in which everyone takes full responsibility for their work?

William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, once famously asked: “Which is better – to have laws and agree, or to hunt and kill?” Golding clearly knew a few things about how people behaved in groups; his savage satire on the human condition delineated for generations of schoolchildren the importance of authority and leadership. Without those, the theory goes, disagreement and dissent lead to anarchy and, eventually, destruction.

But what of corporate teams? Are they doomed to squabble among themselves without strong oversight and executive management? Can peer pressure produce good results without tipping over into bullying?

Studies have shown that teams without a clear policy of mutual accountability struggle to identify and deal with problems. A recent article* about the crash of Air France Flight 447, in 2009, discusses the impact of a culture, prevalent in airline cockpits until very recently, in which the hierarchical structure of command dissuades junior members of the team from questioning the authority of those in charge. A similar situation was also common (and can still arise) in hospital operating theatres, where the surgeon’s errors would go unchallenged because of their perceived authority. In the absence of group accountability, the gap between identifying and remedying a problem can produce disastrous results.

US corporate research firm Vital Smarts has built a portfolio of studies around this area. The firm has found that, without accountability, operational performance suffers, good ideas are stifled and poor managers escape rigorous reviews. Indeed, the data found that groups that placed emphasis on enforcing accountability outperformed others.**

Identifying organizations that take this seriously isn’t easy. Often, businesses with good performance levels make a great show of empowering employees to hold colleagues (of all ranks) accountable for slips in procedure or poor showing. Vital Smarts Founder Joseph Grenny reports that recent research demonstrated the value of fostering accountability at all levels.

“We divided 420 supervisors and managers from our original 30 companies into two groups,” says Grenny. “The first group had fabulous and sustained departmental safety records. The second group’s safety records were middle of the road. After comparing the two groups’ general safety compliance levels, we then looked at whether differences in safety mirrored differences in other areas of performance.”***

Grenny found that, not only were there differences, but that they were profound ones. “Those supervisors and managers with the strongest safety records were five times more likely to be ranked in the top 20% of their peers in every other area of performance. They were 500% more likely to be stars in productivity, efficiency, employee satisfaction, quality and so on.”

Just as they had suspected, the companies best at holding people accountable for safety were best at holding people accountable for everything.

So how can companies improve this? Can you truly embed a culture of accountability? Grenny believes there are some simple techniques that can help:

  • Set expectations: senior managers should tell colleagues they’re expected to hold their peers accountable.
  • Tell stories: make sure positive examples of team members addressing accountability concerns are flagged up and told to others. “Vicarious learning is a powerful form of influence and storytelling is the best way to make it happen,” Grenny says.
  • Model it: if you are heard complaining about staff members, your credibility as a trusted leader is immediately undermined. So “walk the walk.”
  • Teach it: the best leaders are teachers, and they often codify the skills they think are important for holding “crucial conversations.” Take 5 to 10 minutes in a staff meeting to teach one of these skills.
  • Set a joint-escalation policy: the downside of peer accountability is the proliferation of colleagues escalating issues up the command chain. To manage this, both peers need to agree that they can’t resolve it between themselves before they take it further together.

* “The human factor,” Vanity Fair, October 2014, vanityfair.com/business/2014/10/air-france-flight-447-crash.print, accessed November 2014.
** Ö Gürerk, B Irlenbusch and B Rockenbach, “The competitive advantage of sanctioning institutions,” Science, 312 (108), 2006.
*** J Grenny, “The Peer Principle,” Bloomsberg Business Week, May 2010, businessweek.com/managing/content/apr2010/ca20100428_172881.htm#p2, accessed November 2014.

The article was written by:

  • Christian Doherty

Download the article as pdfpdf200.73 kB

EY refers to one or more of the member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited (EYG), a UK private company limited by guarantee. EYG is the principal governance entity of the global EY organization and does not provide any service to clients. Services are provided by EYG member firms. Each of EYG and its member firms is a separate legal entity and has no liability for another such entity's acts or omissions. Certain content on this site may have been prepared by one or more EYG member firms