The Spark of True Accountability

February 03, 2015
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Responsibility must be bestowed, but accountability must be taken.

Craig Hickman, The Oz Principle


A 2012 article by the Harvard Business Review said: “By far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.”

Accountability is a word thrown around a lot these days. You hear it often in conversations about corporate and governmental responsibility. Quite often, when something goes wrong, you hear the rallying cry: “Someone should be held accountable!”

But is this way of looking at accountability really the most effective?

A team member at one of Barry-Wehmiller’s Minnesota-based packaging equipment companies always had trouble understanding the concept of accountability.

“Does that mean,” he asked, “If someone has a typo, you fire them? Does that mean if they stub their toe, you cut their pay? Nobody had been able to answer that to my satisfaction.”

The meaning continued to escape him until he took Barry-Wehmiller University’s Culture of Service Foundations class. Over three days, this course works to shape new ideas around service – from re-defining a customer from an external person to your co-worker, your family, even someone you’ve never met. It teaches the idea that service is taking action to meet the needs of someone else. Therefore, a culture of service is a shared purpose where everyone is meeting the needs of others inside and outside the organization. As we say in the class, “Anyone becomes a customer at the moment we have an opportunity to serve.”

A critical part of service, accountability receives a new definition in the class, too. For this team member, it was like a light bulb had been switched on in his head. He learned that responsibility is given, but accountability has to be taken.

“Accountability is not about holding someone else’s feet to the fire,” said one of our Culture of Service professors. “It’s not about projecting an expectation onto them. It’s about one person having an intrinsic sense of ownership of a job or task and then the willingness to face the consequences of its success or failure. It’s about helping to light a fire inside of them.

“And as leaders, we have to realize that we can’t force this on anyone. Our job as leaders is to create environments that give people the space and freedom to take initiative themselves. We can’t control how a person chooses to behave in a particular moment. In a sense, it’s a fallacy to assume we can ‘motivate’ our people. Motivation comes from within.”

When the light bulb went off in our team member’s head, he now knew it was his responsibility to position others to be successful. Now, when he approaches his team, he asks himself, “How can I facilitate the idea of taking accountability?” He seeks input on what people need to be successful in their roles. He works to remove obstacles for others. He deals one-on-one with those who may have a “defeatist attitude” in order to address real concerns and asks others to simply commit to doing their best.

“When we commit to something with our whole hearts, we do everything in our power to make it happen,” he said. “And the vast majority of the time we’re successful. Occasionally, when we fail, there’s nothing anyone can say that will mean as much as how we already feel.”

As a truly human leader, don’t step back from the heat. Bring the kindling to help light the fire inside your team.

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