Accountability Doesn’t Work


iStock_000001565361XSmallThe outcry is loud and clear: public agencies must be held accountable!

It follows that if the agency is going to be held accountable, employees who make up the agency should be held accountable, too. As a result, public sector leaders are considering accountability initiatives intended to improve the performance of public employees. And it won’t work.

What does it really mean to “hold someone accountable?” The common interpretation is that if something doesn’t turn out like it was supposed to, someone will be blamed. The term accountability implies fault and guilt. When we are “held accountable” our natural reaction is to become defensive, to come up with excuses, or to point fingers.

In addition to being blame-focused, the traditional approach to accountability is past-focused. The focus is on what has already happened and on who is responsible. Accountability is negative and unproductive.

Public officials have faced their share of accountability lately. ¬†From Bell, CA to the Secret Service, we’re all under more scrutiny than ever before. Between watchdog groups, blogs, and an ever-critical media, it seems accountability is the buzzword of the 21st century.
Don’t get me wrong. Public agencies do need to be accountable to constituents, and they must always act responsibly, in the best interest of those they serve. And employees do too. But in employee relations, accountability is not the pathway to a successful, thriving organizational culture.

So how do we enhance the performance of public employees without holding them accountable? It’s a shift in perspective.

Rather than past-focused accountability, shift your outlook to one that is future-focused, expecting employees to fully own the outcome of their efforts. The key word here is “own.”

Ownership is choosing to take full responsibility for your behaviors, embracing the full result of your efforts regardless of the outcome, while focusing on how the future will improve because of your efforts.

Accountability is often done TO employees. Ownership, on the other hand, represents the way employees engages in the world around them. Simply put, when employees own their work, accountability is the result.

With this definition, performance-related conversations can be productive and forward thinking. The goal of most performance conversations is to help employees change their behavior, solve problems, or improve performance. Rather than focusing on what you don’t want to see, an ownership-focused conversation will highlight what the employee will do to enhance the situation.

When you foster a work environment that values ownership, great things can happen, including:

  • Improved levels of employee performance
  • Enhanced engagement and enthusiasm
  • Increased commitment and loyalty to the work and to the
  • Higher levels of pride and ownership in the work product and the
    bottom line
  • Improved safety and fewer accidents
  • Reduced turnover
  • More creativity and innovation
  • Greater morale
  • Greater job satisfaction

Yes, let’s hold public agencies accountable for their results. To get to accountability, we need to create an ownership culture.



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