Four Approaches to Accountability

Eric Stutzman

workplace accountability, workplace culture, organizational culture, leadership, management

[Excerpt from The Culture Question]

Organizations can approach accountability in four distinct ways, as we explain with a model called the Accountability Grid (see image below). We’ve adapted this matrix from Ted Wachtel’s use of the Social Discipline Window, a conflict resolution tool. The four approaches are based on varying levels of both accountability and support:

  • Ignoring: Avoiding problems we’d like to see fixed (low accountability, low support).
  • Enabling: Supporting employees while excusing their unhealthy behaviors or failing to consistently address their mistakes (low accountability, high support).
  • Punishing: Providing accountability through the imposition of disciplinary procedures without supporting long-term change (high accountability, low support).
  • Transforming: Providing accountability for unhealthy behaviors while offering adequate support for long-term growth (high accountability, high support).

Using the Accountability Grid, we show responses along two axes, which are on a continuum of support from low to high and a continuum of accountability from low to high (see figure below).

THE ACCOUNTABILITY GRID

When support and accountability are both low, it is typically because leaders are ignoring problem behavior or not present enough to know what is happening. When leaders ignore problems, they effectively tell employees: “We don’t care. This behavior is acceptable.” These messages negatively affect morale for everyone else!

When leaders support employees but don’t provide accountability, they often enable negative behavior by making excuses for employees. Instead of finding ways to help employees take responsibility for their own actions, enabling leaders sometimes ask others to pick up the slack from their coworkers’ problematic behaviors, or they do it themselves. Because problematic behaviors are not addressed specifically, they are implicitly affirmed, and morale is negatively affected.

Transformative leaders work with employees to create change.

When accountability is high but support is low, leaders often rely on methods that are described in policies, such as written warnings, to administer discipline or punish problematic behaviors. This allows authority figures to express disapproval, but without providing the support employees may need in order to change. Punishment without support for change communicates a respect for rules, but not for people. It can send a chill through an organization, usually creating anger and defensiveness while negatively impacting morale as people take sides on whether the punishment was just.

Finally, when support and accountability are both high, leaders have the possibility of transforming behavior. This approach recognizes that change requires both the enforcement of high standards and the support necessary for achieving those standards. Transformative leaders work with employees to create change. When leaders approach accountability in this way, they demonstrate respect, compassion, and courage. While this may be difficult, it ultimately shapes individuals and teams in positive ways.

This fourth approach to accountability has clear advantages over the other three for creating a healthy workplace culture. While high levels of both accountability and support may take more time to begin with, we have learned that, in the long term, the efforts are worth it. In our own organization, when an individual has been acting in a way that doesn’t fit with our values or expectations, we have a conversation with them about what is happening. We both express the need for change and explore what supports the employee may need to become better aligned with our values. In the rare cases when individuals have chosen not to align themselves with the organization, we’ve had to let them go, but we’ve been able to do so in ways that are understandable to them.


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Authors: Randy Grieser, Eric Stutzman, Wendy Loewen, and Michael Labun.

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work.

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