Accountability is people’s ability to understand what is expected of them, to exercise authority and to take responsibility for delivering results. Accountability practices emerged as among the most important drivers of organisational health and, ultimately, performance in McKinsey research based on the Organisational Health Index (OHI).

Of course, some companies are better at fostering it than others. Starbucks is an example of an organisation that does a good job of fostering accountability.

During the economic slowdown of 2008, Starbucks took a hit where 600 stores closed and profit fell by 28%. Leadership during that time blamed the economy and increased price of dairy for the downfall. That was until Howard Shultz came back as CEO after leaving eight years prior. He held leadership accountable rather than blaming things that cannot be controlled, like the economy and dairy prices. He said: “Starbucks’s heavy spending to accommodate its expansion has created a bureaucracy that masked its problems.”

Shultz’s solution to the problem was to create a strategy that developed brand trust. The initiative, called “My Starbucks Idea”, created a way for customers to share ideas directly with the company and with each other. The programme was a success and Starbucks pulled out of its slump. Had Shultz not held leadership accountable, it is unlikely the organisation would have solved the problem.

McKinsey has consistently found that improving role clarity improves accountability, an outcome that is a critical component of the overall health-index score. In fact, organisations with high accountability scores have a 76% probability of achieving top-quartile organisational health – more than triple the expected rate.

It is obvious when a team does not have joint accountability.

Teams lacking in accountability:

  • Create resentment among team members who have different standards of performance;
  • Encourage mediocrity;
  • Miss deadlines; and
  • Put disproportionate pressure on leaders to discipline.

Teams that are accountable:

  • Make sure poor performers feel pressure to improve;
  • Identify problems quickly by questioning one another;
  • Establish respect among team members who are held to same high standards; and
  • Avoid excessive bureaucracy around management and corrective actions.

Some ways in which to build accountability are to:

  1. Ask questions: Questions help people deconstruct the details of performance and consider alternatives without becoming defensive (link to next article).
  2. Create humiliation-free zones: Performance standards should not be intended to “name and shame.” It is the leaders’ responsibility to create a safe space where problems can be solved, rather than simply blaming individuals.
  3. Break big goals into specific elements: Analysing the details that accumulate to produce either failure or success can make it easier to identify steps for improvement. This also makes it easier to find strengths as well as weaknesses.

References:

Bazigos, M., Ellsworth, D., & Goldstein, D. (2016).Where accountability really matters. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/travel-transport-and-logistics/our-insights/where-accountability-really-matters

De Smet, A., Schaninger, B., & Smith, M. (2016). The hidden value of organisational health – and how to capture it. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/dotcom/client_service/Retail/Articles/Perspectives%20Summer%202014/05%20Org%20health.ashx

Kanter, R.M. (2009). Four tips for building accountability. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2009/08/looking-in-the-mirror-of-accou

 

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