carrotstickRecently, in a large mid-western hospital, a woman was checked in for a routine tonsillectomy. When her surgery was finished and she woke up in the recovery room, she discovered the doctor had amputated a portion of her right foot. She, and the hospital were aghast.

How could something like this happen? During preparations for her surgery, at least 7 different employees came in contact with the doctor’s orders, her medical records, hospital policies, procedures and protocol, but did nothing to raise the issue and avoid the impending disaster.

Why? What is really at play when highly trained, intelligent employees are either too afraid or too indifferent to ask a question or raise concerns of this level of importance? The answer is simple (but not simplistic!) – It has nothing to do with education, training, experience or intelligence, but it has everything to do with Organizational Culture (OC).  In any organization, your OC has a direct impact on your metrics, including customer service, revenue, employee turnover, productivity, costs, profitability etc. In short, your organization depends on its culture to get results.

Someone Should be FIRED!

If something this catastrophic occurred in your organization – what would the reaction be? Most people would say – “we need to hold someone ACCOUNTABLE!” Recently we saw this type of reaction play out during  the national Veterans Administration (VA) scandal. People across the country, from every walk of life were c40-VETSalling for someone to be held accountable for the “lost” or destroyed waiting lists of veterans waiting to be seen by a doctor in many VA hospitals. In that situation, as many as 40 veterans may have died at the Phoenix, AZ VA hospital alone waiting to get an appointment with a doctor. And many people thought, and said – “someone should be FIRED!”

While firing someone or taking other negative disciplinary action is one method (perhaps the most common method) of holding people “accountable” – it’s not the best method. The reason is simple – it’s lagging. There is nothing proactive about taking disciplinary action or even firing someone after a catastrophe. So the question becomes, how do we get employees engaged to avoid problems before they become a disaster?

Moving From Negative, Reactive Accountability to Positive, Proactive Accountability

Whether we look at the VA or the privately owned and operated mid-west hospital, or any number of other organizations, accountability is usually about assigning BLAME and then taking some action designed to demonstrate that “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” In other words, that we can (and do) “hold people accountable”.

One tool many organizations use to address some type of chronic personal or organizational performance problem is a performance management system. One recent survey found that in the US at any given time, as many as 60% of all organizations are in the process of redesigning their performance management system.  But let me ask you, have you ever seen an immediate improvement in employee or organizational performance or engagement because of redesigned performance appraisal forms, processes or frequency? No? Neither have I.

So, if a redesigned performance management system isn’t the answer and nether is punitive disciplinary action, what is?  The long term, sustainable answer is: Your Organizational Culture (OC). In organizations with a strong OC, where personal accountability and responsibility is part of their DNA, employees perform because they are engaged and want to contribute to what’s incredible about that organization.

Let’s look back for a minute to the devastating amputation at the hospital. That organization’s OC was so laced with fear or indifference that a minimum of 7 people allowed another human being to have her foot amputated because they lacked the personal accountability to take positive action to protect both the organization and the patient.

In his bestselling book, QBQ – The Question Behind The Question, John G. Miller makes a powerful argument that “the lack of personal accountability has resulted in an epidemic of blame, complaining and procrastination” that makes it literally impossible for an organization – or individual – to be competitive, achieve goals, build relationships & teams and get results.

When we think of “being held accountable” most of us think we’re going to get blamed for something or suffer some kind of repercussions for something we either did or didn’t do. But in high performing organizations with strong OCs, accountability is an expectation of every member of the team. In fact, it’s not only expected, it’s required! Let me explain:

In a recent study that looked at over 500 highly productive, high performing companies, researchers found that a formal performance management system had virtually no correlation with their success. In fact, almost 50% of the respondents didn’t even have a formal performance management system or processes in place.

Now, before you get all excited and decide to throw your performance management system and annual appraisals out the window, it’s important to understand the OC of these organizations and what makes this work.

In the worst organizations, when performance or behavior problems come up, they’re ignored and/or swept under the rug. They may even be transferred to another department, group or division. The point is nothing is done to address it in a way that drives personal accountability.

In good organizations, performance or behavior problems are addressed by the manager, usually when they’ve gotten so out of hand that they can no longer be ignored or once or twice a year at performance review time. We commonly refer to this as the “about time” syndrome, because the other employees are standing around commenting on the fact that “it’s about time something was done.”

Now contrast both the worst and good organizations with the best organizations. In those 500 highly productive organizations, a common thread was the fact that both performance and behavior problems were addressed immediately and directly by the employees themselves. Yes that’s right, in highly productive organizations employees hold themselves and others accountable as part of the team. The manager doesn’t have to because the team is so invested in the organization, they set expectations, provide on-going feedback and everyone works together to achieve results.

This doesn’t happen by accident – it’s who they are as an organization – it’s part of their DNA. In other words, it’s the living, breathing OC Equation™.

Values + Philosophies x Actions = Organizational Culture (OC)

A strong OC is intentional – developed, supported and reinforced everyday by what gets someone hired, what gets rewarded and what gets someone fired.

Is accountability a dirty word in your organization or do employees at all levels of the organization take personal responsibility to make things happen and get results? It’s the difference between assigning blame for problems and playing the victim when things don’t go your way vs. welcoming the personal responsibility to actively seek out ways to make things better. So, you see, whether employees are doing something to get the carrot or avoid the stick, that only works when the carrot or stick are present. But your OC is who you are as an organization, it’s in your DNA – employees are accountable because it’s the right thing to do and provides value to the organization – the carrot and the stick be damned.