Holding people and organizations to account has historically been a case of pinning blame on them for failures they either caused directly or should have been aware of. As a result, organizations should not be surprised if employees are reluctant to embrace a culture of accountability. But Paul Russell, director and co-founder of soft skills training firm Luxury Academy, says that the key to encouraging employees to be more accountable is to teach them that the term is not synonymous with blame.
"Whereas accountability is a strategic approach implemented by management to enable more effective working practices, blame looks to apportion guilt for mistakes," Russell says. "A blame culture is inhibiting for employees, while an accountability culture should help employees to exhibit productive, effective working practices."
For employees to take ownership of problems and mistakes, they must have a strong understanding of customer expectations and their role in delivering them, Russell says. The workplace culture, he adds, should be one where roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, with an effective leadership strategy that encourages open communication and team working. Employees should receive consistent training, be encouraged to take accountability for the customer experience, and empowered to put things right if they go wrong.
Internal audit also has a strong role to play in the process. For example, in the U.K.'s Corporate Governance Code, internal audit has a duty to provide assurance to the board on the organization's culture.
"Internal audit needs to review accountabilities as part of its internal audit processes, as well as look at the culture of the unit being audited," says Philippa Foster Back, director at the Institute of Business Ethics, a U.K.-based organization that advocates for better business behavior. "And a key question that internal audit should ask is if employees can — and do — speak up and raise issues."
Foster Back points out that organizations need to have robust management reporting lines — as well as "speak up" and whistleblowing procedures — so that employees know how they can escalate concerns, rather than being left to either resolve issues themselves (where they might not be qualified to do so) or take the blame for mistakes made (which is also inappropriate). She adds that getting employees to take ownership of problems and stopping them from covering up mistakes or passing the buck is easier to encourage if the organization's culture is open.
"In an open culture there is a dialogue and discussion of scenarios of dilemmas faced and mistakes being made," Foster Back says. "If these are openly discussed, say in a team meeting, the language is created so it isn't so difficult to own up. And underlying this open culture is the necessary support of leaders recognizing the importance of learning from mistakes."
Ultimately, achieving a culture of accountability will not happen overnight. "People struggle with what accountability means and are therefore afraid to take ownership of problems or make decisions on issues outside of their comfort zones or pay grades," says Liz Sandwith, chief professional practices advisor at the U.K.'s Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors.
However, progress will be achieved when people become more familiar with what the term implies. "We need people to understand what 'accountability' is, because it means taking responsibility for one's actions — and not in a negative, 'blaming and shaming' way," Sandwith says.
"Rather, accountability means making decisions when necessary for the benefit of the organization," she continues. "If those decisions turn out to be 'bad' decisions, these employees should not be punished: The organizational culture should be one in which mistakes can be tolerated, and where lessons can be learned, and training provided."