How to create a culture of accountability without becoming top-down

Lisa Gill
22 August 2018

Hands holding conversation bubbles containing an exclamation point, a question mark and a weighing scale

Most leaders today accept that in order to thrive in a world of complexity, we need to develop ways of working that are less hierarchical and more responsive and agile.

However, when I speak to people in organisations that are embracing more horizontal ways of working, particularly small tech companies or startups, there seems to be one challenge that pops up time and time again: how do we create a culture of accountability without becoming the kind of top-down, command-and-control organisation we want to move away from?

When things are going well and people seem to be collaborating effectively, accountability seems to take care of itself. But what about when things aren’t going well? What about when you reach a certain size and it becomes harder to know if things are getting done and if they’re being done well?

What about when people aren’t keeping their promises, when they’re missing deadlines, or when they’re harming the team? It’s challenging to know what to do in this context because most of us only know how to deal with it in the old paradigm of organising in which the manager (or perhaps HR) is responsible for motivating employees, or punishing them, or incentivising them, or firing them, or instructing them, or correcting them…and so on.

Many of us don’t realise that creating accountability doesn’t have to come at the expense of freedom. It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Here’s a model I like that illustrates this point.

Amy Edmondson’s psychological safety four-box model with apathy zone, comfort zone, anxiety zone and learning zone

Source: Amy C. Edmondson’s “Teaming”

The focus of Amy Edmondson’s research is what makes teams effective. Perhaps you’ve already read about the value of creating a culture of “psychological safety,” where people feel able to speak up, challenge each other, and make mistakes without fear of retribution. Many teams I work with (like this IT social enterprise in Ukraine) have done a pretty good job at creating psychological safety but struggle with the accountability piece, resulting in a bit of a “Comfort Zone” phenomenon.

Without accountability, people in this zone won’t feel challenged and it really hurts trust and ultimately team performance. Of course, all accountability and no psychological safety is no good either — this produces a climate of fear and anxiety, conditions which cannot foster sustainable team performance.

So the sweet spot, Edmondson tells us, is to have a balance of psychological safety and accountability. This way, people feel safe to be themselves and make mistakes, but they are also clear about the responsibilities they have and are able to hold each other to account when they miss the mark.

How to create an accountability culture

Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, you need to develop something that feels right in your organisational context. However, here are three examples of practices I’ve come across when it comes to creating accountability that might inspire you.

Create a shared language

Writer Alan Moore has pointed out it’s no coincidence that we “spell” words. He says: “to cast a spell, is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.” Language is a powerful tool we can use to construct a shared reality in an organisation. One example I love is at WD-40 Company, where employees take the “WD-40 Maniac Pledge.” Here’s what it says:

WD-40 Company’s “Maniac Pledge”

In the same way that doctors take an oath or we say wedding vows to one another, this Maniac Pledge uses language to call a commitment and a new identity (in this case, what WD-40 calls a “learning maniac”) into being.

Make and keep commitments

“Responsibility is the fact that each of us is free; accountability is the individual act of accepting and choosing that fact.”

— “Freedom and Accountability” by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block

One of the central tools for accountability at self-managing food processor Morning Star is called the Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU), which is a form of agreement between an individual and anyone they’re accountable to, especially their colleagues. It includes:

  1. Individual responsibilities

  2. Stepping stones (metrics and milestones)

  3. Examples of perfect performance

  4. Training and education commitments

Doug Kirkpatrick, who was part of the original team at Morning Star, has written a lot about commitment making and laments at how sloppy we tend to be at making and keeping commitments in most organisations. One of his heroes is Fernando Flores, the Chilean-born linguistics and computer researcher, who he calls the godfather of commitment-making.

Flores’ learned through his research that commitments are “speech acts that consist of making someone an offer, which they are free to accept or decline. If they accept, one will make a commitment to fulfil a promise.” That’s why the CLOUs start as a letter to your colleague, and then end up on the intranet with real-time metrics and a record of who each person’s CLOU colleagues are.

Another example is the Accountability Questions that a small, New Zealand-based tech company called Optimi has developed. Here’s how they did it. Together team members defined clear roles and how they connect together. Then, they decided who would be accountable for each of these roles.

For each role, they then designed a series of Accountability Questions. These are questions based on what success looks like in a role that can be answered with an honest “yes” or “no.” Some of these were habit-forming questions (“Have you posted a monthly financial update?”), some were outcome-based questions (“Have you ensured Optimi is staying within scope on each client?”), and some were “doing your best” questions (“Have you done your best to increase the readership of any recently published blogs?”).

Once they’ve answered the questions, each person has the opportunity to set an intention for next month. The whole process helps the team stay connected and hold each other to account — distributing responsibility, rather than relying on a manager. Read this post to learn more about examples of Accountability Questions and how to create them. (See also Helen Sanderson’s brilliant Wellbeing Teams and their Confirmation Practices.)

Embrace conflict conversations

Conflict is inevitable in any collaboration because all of us as human beings have different needs and it’s inevitable that at some point, some kind of tension will arise. I’ve written before about looking at conflict not as something to resolve, but as something to transform.

There’s a great deal of potential on the other side of conflict: creativity, new insights, and deeper relationships. Again, in a top-down, command-and-control paradigm, it would be the manager or HR’s job to deal with conflicts. However, if you want to have colleagues who are more responsible and accountable themselves, the team needs to be responsible for dealing with conflicts.

At Buurtzorg, a nursing organisation with 14,000 nurses and no managers, employees are trained in Nonviolent Communication early on with the idea that teams are able to collaboratively transform their conflicts themselves. If they are struggling to do so, they can call in their regional coach to facilitate a conversation.

The individuals and the team at this point may agree on some commitments together and try again. Or in some cases, the person might realise the trust is irrevocably broken and decide it’s time to leave. If no agreement can be found, as a last chance to try to settle the matter, the team members can ask Jos de Blok, the founder, to mediate. In the rare cases where even this fails, they can ask him to put an end to the person’s contract (legally, he is the only one who can do so). (Read more about examples of conflict resolution, including this one, on the Reinventing Organizations wiki here.)

This is the moose head we have up on the wall of the Tuff office as a reminder to bring up conflicts and champion open communication

One final example. My colleagues and I at Tuff Leadership Training have a tool we use with clients to bring up conflicts called “moose heads.” A moose head is a metaphor for a taboo issue that has become infected in a team. It’s called a moose head because it’s as if we are all sitting in a meeting and there’s a huge, rotting moose head on the table that everyone can see, but no one is talking about — it might be a dynamic between two people, someone’s way of being that’s not working for an individual or the team, or a historic issue that’s never really been resolved.

Internally, we’ve come to use the term moose head as a way of bringing up a conflict right at the start when it’s just a grain of sand, rather than waiting for it to fester and infect others, which costs much more energy to address. We start most of our meetings with the question: “Any moose heads?” Someone might say: “Yes, I have a small moose head. It’s just that yesterday in our meeting, I felt that my point wasn’t really listened to.”

Then the rest of us listen so that person feels heard and “felt”, perhaps asking some clarifying questions. After that, they might make a request or we might make a suggestion of an agreement we could make to try our best to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Shared language, commitments, conflict conversations

So those are just three examples of how to create an accountability culture in an organisation where individuals and teams are accountable, rather than having a manager or management team responsible for people being accountable.

  1. Create shared language that everyone can understand and refer to around accountability

  2. Devise a way to make and keep commitments with integrity — the clearer and more explicit, the better

  3. Have conflict conversations, ideally when the conflict is small and it doesn’t take so much energy to address

The red thread in the examples I’ve shared is putting accountability up on the table, instead of hoping that it will somehow happen. As Doug Kirkpatrick said, we’re usually very sloppy at making and keeping commitments, so it really helps to make accountability an intention by talking about it out in the open (check out this coaching session where Fred Kofman, Vice President at LinkedIn, demonstrates the difference between using dry, project language, and powerful, human language like “promise”, “integrity”, and “honouring your word”).

I believe accountability starts when we are able to talk about the promises we make to each other, who we’re accountable to, what the consequences are if we let each other down, and how to clean it up if we go wrong.