How a culture of accountability helps reduce urgency

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 24th August 2020

The office I work from has several apartments above it. The rubbish bins in the car park are the responsibility of the apartment tenants, who should put them out to be collected each week. Because the landlord also runs a retail shop from the building, which has its own industrial bins, there is some confusion about who is responsible for putting the bins out.

I recently walked past some of the shop staff who were complaining that the apartment bins had not been put out in over four weeks and were overflowing with stinky rubbish. I listened to their grievances politely but could tell that there was a problem here that may have been of the landlord’s own making. It seemed to me that he assumed the tenants would take responsibility for the bins, even though there was no culture of accountability in place.

Some teams have a great culture of accountability, where everyone takes responsibility for the outcomes that need to be achieved. Dan McCarthy describes a culture of accountability in this way:

‘A culture of accountability is an organisation of accountable employees. Results are communicated and understood by everybody. Accountability is determined proactively, before the fact, not reactively, after the fact. When a mistake is made, the response is not finger pointing and excuses – it is about solving the problem and learning from mistakes.’

How to build a culture of accountability – Dan McCarthy

I suspect in my landlord’s case he did not determine accountability before the fact. He assumed that the tenants would do the right thing and make sure the bins were put out. But in a situation where you do not have a strong culture of accountability, you may find that when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Everyone assumes someone else will do it. Or in this case, that the landlord and his staff would do it.

Building a culture of accountability is especially critical if you want to manage unproductive urgency and reactivity in your workplace. If you do not proactively determine the accountabilities, the risk is that people assume that certain tasks are someone else’s responsibility, and mistakes get made. Things slip through the cracks, get forgotten or get left until the last minute. And this leads to what I call avoidable urgency, which I believe is one of the greatest causes of workplace stress and frustration. I talk about this in my new book Urgent! which you can find online and in good bookstores right now.

Now, do I expect my landlord to run workshops to build a culture of accountability with his group of tenants? No, of course not. But I reckon he would do well to acknowledge that one does not exist, and to put an explicit communication plan in place around the bins so that the job gets done.

In your team though, it might be worth thinking about how accountable the culture is. And if necessary, put some things in place to remedy any shortcomings.

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