While there is no question that having a high level of accountability in the workplace is a good thing, the trick is getting your teammates to that point of clarity without tipping the scale over into a perilous danger zone.
That is, how do you avoid what I call the “accountability trap“, where teammates are so focused on what happens if they run afoul of their responsibilities that they go into a paralysis, unwilling to take any risks to drive the company forward.
The trap comes into play when accountability focuses more on a “procedure based” approach that puts great emphasis on volumes of detailed and explicit rules and regulations that generally need to be followed to the letter, “or else”.
The trap is set when these rules are then integrated by middle level supervisors who never get a full explanation of the context and common sense behind all those policies.
The net result is a staff that are being held accountable to, quite literally, a two inch binder and a promise of retribution if every single thing in that binder is not adhered to, to the letter. There is no risk taking out there – no deviations, no creativity, just a fear of that binder.
Then, people start getting reprimanded, or held back, or worse yet, fired by these managers.
The trap door then closes. Bam! Everyone is, in practice, doing everything “by the book”, but real initiative and meaningful productivity fall by the wayside.
How do you avoid this trap?
By using an approach based on trust, common sense and self-accountability. You spend more time talking about the “whys” than the “whats”. You allow teammates to develop their own internal barometer on what is right or wrong within the context of their jobs, using formal policy only as a guideline.
The best example of “trap avoidance” working in the real world, for me, was during my cable TV career when I was talking to a call center agent about the “policy” of doing everything in her power to avoid a costly truck roll to a customer’s house. She described a recent call she had with an elderly woman, who was too frail to climb under her desk to reset a cable modem.
The “policy” book said we should do whatever we could to get that customer to hit the reset button, and if we ended up rolling a truck for a reset, we would “ding” the call center agent.
This agent simply didn’t care about the policy – she said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’ll be darned if I was going to have that poor woman climb under the desk. I rolled the truck, and I don’t care about the consequences”.
Of course, I told her there weren’t going to be any consequences, or any “dings”. She absolutely did the right thing.
We danced around the trap like Fred & Ginger – gracefully, and in sync.
Stay out of the Accountability Trap!