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What’s the deal with accountability in your organization?

A few weeks ago, I was in a government service centre to hand in the licence plates for one of my old cars. As you would most likely guess, the waiting room was jam-packed with people. I took a number from the ticket machine and realized there were twenty-two people ahead of me. I sighed – this was going to take a while.

I looked around to see if a chair was available and only found one.  At a distance, I noticed a paper bag next to the vacant chair. I thought someone was still using it, so I remained standing. Then a person sitting next to that open chair said to me that the individual had left a while ago and the seat was free.

I walked over; as I went to sit down, I got a better look at that bag. It was from a fast-food restaurant. It was open, and I could see all the wrappers and boxes still in it. The person must have eaten their lunch while in the waiting room.

Then I wondered why they would leave the bag there on the floor and not throw it in a garbage bin? Maybe there wasn’t one in the office, I thought. No, that wasn’t the case. A garbage can was there and only about five metres from where I sat.

When I see this sort of stuff happening in the world, it drives me crazy! Now granted the person may have forgotten to throw out the bag and its contents. Most likely, I think they left it there for someone else. Who did they think would clean up their mess?

Ultimately, for me, this small incident is a story about accountability and, more specifically, the lack of it. The gap can show up in significant ways, and often in little ways – where people fail to step up. It happens far too frequently, and it’s happening in our organizations as well.

Let’s consider a common frustration in many workplaces – the common kitchen area. In my experience, I have heard and witnessed more drama about the state of the office kitchen than almost any other organizational issue. In most organizations, there is a collective responsibility to manage the kitchen sink. We expect everyone to do their small part, and when they do, things work.

We understand that people should place their dirty plates and forks in the dishwasher. However, what typically happens? Most people dump things in the sink. Granted, sometimes they have no choice because the dishwasher is full, it’s running, or no one has decided to empty it. Suddenly, the kitchen sink is overflowing with dirty cups and utensils.

Clean Up. Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here!

Then the signs start to appear, usually from an anonymous co-worker. At first, they are pleasant in tone. “Please remember to place your dirty cup in the dishwasher. Thank you.” This sign has a smiley face next to it. Alternatively, you may see a sign that says, “Dirty cups go in here,” with a picture of a dishwasher just in case they haven’t seen one before. Sometimes they also add an image of an adorable kitten because that certainly will get people to comply.

Everyone ignores the signs. The kitchen sink is filthy, and the problem persists. Then new signs begin to emerge, some warning of the potential health risk of spreading germs and viruses. Others have an increasingly cynical and snarky tone, eventually leading to the sign that says, “CLEAN UP! YOUR MOTHER DOESN’T WORK HERE!!!”

Years ago, one of my clients was a professional services firm. The kitchen sink drama at the firm got so out of control that it made it up to the partnership group. As senior leaders, they took immediate action. They sent out a decree demanding that everyone be an adult and clean up after themselves. At the very bottom of the memo, they put in a clause that exempted the partners from cleaning up after themselves. Why? Because they were too busy and important to worry about that sort of stuff. Employees couldn’t believe what they read and went out of their way to make the kitchen sink totally disgusting. Eventually, the firm hired a full-time person to keep things clean.

Sometimes, I wish I was making this stuff up, but I’m not. I then wonder how we can ever deal with real business challenges when we can’t even figure out how to keep the kitchen sink clean.

As I thought more about this, I started to ask myself whether the problem is in how we approach accountability. As you know, I spend much of my time talking about leadership accountability. Companies everywhere are desperately trying to strengthen it among their leaders and employees.

Some take a direct, heavy-handed and even fear-based approach: “YOU shall be accountable!” Of course, this is often met with resistance and resentment, especially if the senior leaders do not model accountability in how they lead. In these instances, accountability becomes uninspiring and demotivating. Then mediocrity seeps into the organization, creating a more serious problem to solve.

Accountability Can Be Inspiring and Vicarious

On a personal level, I’ve had very different experiences with accountability. I’ve been lucky to work in environments where everyone is committed to stepping up, taking ownership and working together to drive extraordinary results. When you are in this kind of environment, accountability is inspiring. You don’t need your leaders to demand accountability because they demonstrate it in how they lead. It can also be vicarious – you look at how your colleagues show up, and they motivate you. You then feel an obligation to do your part to achieve success. Those who struggle or are unwilling to be accountable stick out from everyone else. In turn, they either join in, leave or are asked to leave.

How are things in your organization? Are you approaching accountability in a heavy-handed manner, or is everyone working to inspire each other to step up? We have a choice in how we tackle this critical business issue. What are you doing about it? A good place to start is to remember to put your dirty coffee cup in the dishwasher. That will help to move things in the right direction.

What’s the deal with accountability in your organization?

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We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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