EVERY LEADER EXPECTS HIS EMPLOYEES to be accountable for their actions, but Julie Miller and Brian Bedford believe leaders must hold themselves accountable too
"Employees pay attention to what you do, not what you say," notes Miller, coauthor along with Bedford of Culture Without Accountability-WTF: What's the Fix? "Your behavior makes clear what the real corporate values are. So when you or other higher-level leaders ignore the company's values, department managers think they can behave that way too. Meanwhile, employees will think they can ignore important change initiatives because management gets to ignore them.
"Soon you've got a company of employees who act however they want," she adds. "High performers won't want to work in an environment like that. They'll leave. And what remains will be a company full of individuals promoting only their own self-interests. And as we've seen with companies like Lehman Brothers, Enron, and Bear Stearns, that will only end badly."
Company leaders, say the authors, should be aware of what they call the "as above, so below" phenomenon: the concept in which employees mirror the behaviors of the successful leaders they see above them. The rationale is simple: "If they get ahead by behaving that way, then that's what I'll do." That's great when leaders are acting with accountability but it becomes a big problem when leaders don't make accountability a priority. Here are some ways to fix that:
Hold yourself accountable. "You must hold yourself accountable to at least the same level of expectation you have for your employees," says Miller. "A rule applies to everyone or it applies to no one. As a leader you must be keenly aware that everyone is watching you, and everything starts at the top."
Spell out expectations to the letter. Without clear expectations, there's no way to hold someone accountable. You must make sure that each employee has a clear understanding of what is expected of him or her in the job he or she performs. That may mean going into detail that, on the surface, feels like overkill-but isn't. Telling employees "It's vital to me that I can always rely on you to do what you say you'll do. If you can't because circumstances have changed, let me know ASAP with a fix-it plan" sets a very clear expectation.
Hone the art of instant feedback. Miller and Bedford talk a lot about feedback in their book, because it's so important. Most people don't like giving feedback, and they like getting it even less! But you can't hold people accountable without it. And Miller insists that for feedback to be productive, it must be shared regularly and without delay.
"If this practice becomes part of the culture, your people will come to expect it and not feel that it's anything unusual," she explains. "Leaders should share impressions as soon as they see the behavior they would like to encourage or discourage. Make sure feedback is specific, focusing on the particular issue or behavior in question. If a leader will focus on what the person actually said or did-the facts and nothing but the facts-without labeling the employee or the action, the employee will be more likely to hear and heed the feedback.
"In order to establish a culture of accountability, there can be no double standard," concludes Bedford. "Leaders and employees must follow the same set of rules; otherwise the whole system breaks down. The good news is that when leaders commit to role modeling the right behaviors, their employees will follow."
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