Trust Repair For Leaders (Part 1): Accountability

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post is the first in a three-part series about how to repair organizational trust. It was inspired by conversations with other members of the Trust Across America Trust Alliance and my work as part of the Trust Alliance TAP team.

The team created 12 Trust Alliance Principles and a survey to assess which areas of trust were most often lacking in organizations. Tap “Take our quiz” at the top of the page to take it and see the collective results.

I was asked to pick one of 12 Trust Principles we had identified and come up with one action I would take in that area as part of #tap2021. I chose to focus on Accountability. Below is the commitment I made.

Accountability     “I will elevate the issue of Accountability in my writing and teaching in 2021, including the importance of expecting the best from people, and designing positive (not punitive) accountability systems.”

— Linda Fisher Thornton

Our TAP Survey uncovered a key weakness that I have seen in organizations throughout my career…. You can have great plans and policies but if you don’t have a well-functioning accountability system, those plans and policies won’t work in practice.

Here are some strategies for building a robust and positive accountability system into your organization:

5 Accountability Strategies

Expect the Best

There is nothing more frustrating for top talent than being punished for the mistakes of others. Expect people to do the right things, and make sure your accountability system rewards those who do the right things.

Keep it Positive

Create incentives for following policies and organizational values. When one person makes a mistake, don’t tighten the rules for everyone, just deal with the offender.

Do More Than Just Fire Someone

Firing isn’t accountability. Firing “one bad apple” doesn’t fix a broken accountability system. It’s a system, and in a broken accountability system something in your performance management process is either incentivizing the wrong behavior or failing to address violations.

Avoid Mixed Messages

Telling people to always do the right thing, and then asking them to meet impossible sales goals is asking for trouble. This is a mixed message, and people usually listen to the part of the mixed message that they see placed in highest importance. Since leaders usually talk more often about “making the numbers” than about doing it ethically, people will figure out creative ways to make the numbers, and they may be be tempted to cheat.

Remember Your Goal

Always remember that the goal of accountability is to get people to follow your values and policies, not to punish and shame those who don’t. Keep it positive by quickly working with offenders, offering them coaching and support first. Later you can implement consequences if they aren’t willing to/don’t improve.

We can think about accountability as the glue that holds a high-trust culture together. Without it, positive messages are ineffective, and negative behaviors can quickly escalate. How’s your glue holding up? Where are the weak spots? Use these strategies to keep your accountability system positive, and to repair it when it gets off track.

To learn more, visit the Trust Across America Blog and join the #Trust conversation across platforms.

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