What about accountability?

I want to acknowledge and thank Jim Benson of Modus Cooperandi and John Shook of the Lean Enterprise Institute for our conversations about accountability. Their keen insights and practical observations helped refine my thinking as I grappled with answering the question I am often asked:

“All that love and safety sounds great, but what about accountability?”

Whenever I talk with people about the need to eliminate fear and indifference and increase love and safety in the workplace someone inevitably brings up the question of accountability. And when they do, others nod their heads in agreement and concern. 

We are really, really worried about accountability.

And no wonder. Almost everyone has suffered co-workers who perform poorly or behaved badly but are allowed to continue at their jobs unchecked. These challenging team mates get away with producing poor quality work, showing up late, or creating unnecessary conflicts. Meanwhile the rest of us slog along picking up the slack and putting up with their behavior because no one "holds them accountable." It's frustrating and exhausting making up for all this neglect. So we have legitimate worries about a workplace that is just too soft, too lenient, too permissive.

But here’s the thing. It isn’t love or safety that make us neglectful, lenient, or permissive. It isn’t our love and safety that are too soft. It’s our commitment that is too soft. It is low commitment to the work and to the customer that cause us to neglect the hard work and sometimes difficult decisions that need to be made concerning under-performance or bad behavior. If we want greater all around performance and outcomes, then we need to increase our commitment. And when we do that in conditions of love and safety, we actually get something far beyond mere accountability. But first things first.

First, how do we strengthen commitment?

Commitment is strengthened when we better understand customers’ expectations and when we know how the customer is impacted by our work. Commitment is improved when we have the tools and information needed to do our jobs. Commitment goes up when we know how our decisions impact others downstream from us, or when our work processes are well designed and safe. Commitment increases when we are recognized and appreciated for our contributions. Commitment increases when we know how the work in question contributes to the organization's purpose and vision.

So what happens when commitment increases? Two basic scenarios are possible (also see image below.)

Scenario 1: High commitment in a fearful workplace creates a culture built on compliance. A system of compliance works to ensure that everyone does what they are supposed to do and that no one gets away with bad behavior. Feet are held to the fire. We verify that minimum standards are met…and usually nothing more. Workers are made to "account for" their every move. The threat of punishment looms. In this negative environment, we are only likely to give and get the bare minimum. 

Scenario 2: But a loving, safe workplace with high commitment creates the more sustainable option, a culture of mutual responsibility. In this culture, I am responsible for my part; you are responsible for your part. And together we are responsible for delivering what customers need. We know we belong; we trust each other and collaborate. We back each other up. We pursue ever better ways of working and improve quality, cost, timeliness, safety, flow. Because we care about and respect our shared commitment, we are more likely to uphold that commitment and deliver results. 

One research interview participant described the mutual responsibility born of high love and safety and high commitment on her IT team: “Knowing that our team has so much love for each other has made such a difference. Our relationships are collaborative and we look out for each other. There is a unified feeling. We are not afraid to have unfiltered debate. A couple of us will be having a conversation in our team space, then the team gathers round. We start bouncing ideas and options around, and it becomes a debate. Before you know it, a unique, creative solution comes out of it. We can do this because of the trust and comfort we have with being transparent and honest."

So no, we don’t have to worry about love and safety being too soft or too permissive. Instead, when love and safety are paired with commitment, they create a better and more sustainable way of working: mutual responsibility.

Have you experienced a team with either a culture of mutual responsibility or a culture of compliance? What was that like?

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 2 by 2 matrix showing options for accountability