Creating a Culture of Accountability

How to set up a performance system of feedback and follow through.

The Commerce Department is facing a major challenge developing a culture of accountability, according to a recent inspector general report. This clearly is a problem throughout government at every level, and also in many parts of the private sector.

Simply put, accountability means that everyone is responsible for his or her actions – both good and bad. In an organization that has true accountability, there are reliable and consistent consequences for every level of performance and behavior. Outstanding performers can expect to receive high ratings, bonuses and promotions. Average employees can expect to keep their jobs, receive a fully successful rating and get their regularly scheduled within-grade increase. Poor employees can expect action will be taken to help them improve, and if that fails, further action up to and including removal.

In an organization with true accountability, employees should be able to see such actions coming. If not, they may think the organization isn’t serious about accountability and actions are less driven by what you do than by who you know. Moreover, they will share this perception with their co-workers, and before you know it the organization will become a breeding ground for cynicism.

You develop a culture of accountability in two ways: 1) designing an integrated set of performance management systems, and 2) implementing those systems in a fair, transparent and equitable manner with reliable and consistent consequences.

Virtually every government organization tries to implement an integrated set of management systems. They typically entail technical (how you do the work) and structural (how you are organized) systems, as well as the decision-making and information, rewards and renewal systems. Importantly, there’s the people system, which covers how you hire, develop, appraise, promote and hold your employees accountable.

The point of the people system is hire the right employees, get them off to a good start, set the right expectations, train them, give them feedback, appraise them, set their pay and ensure they become engaged, committed and high-performing employees who will help the organization thrive.

The people system must be set up to work in tandem with the other systems and provide employees a clear and consistent message. This includes:

  • Well-designed performance standards
  • Individual development plans that help them achieve those goals
  • Continuous feedback
  • Counseling when their performance or behavior is below expectations
  • Proper appraisals
  • Rewards when appropriate
  • Promotions when deserved
  • Involvement in key decisions affecting them

If a system is designed properly, employees will know what is expected, they will see that the system is important and they will follow it accordingly.

It is one thing to have a well-designed system. It is another thing to implement it properly, which is where things tend to fall apart in government. For example, how often have you heard the union complain accuse managers of disparate treatment? It is often a legitimate complaint.

As long as agency leaders fail to apply management systems equitably, they will continue to hear this complaint. It also undermines their ability to hold people accountable. If employees don’t believe they are being treated fairly, they will focus more on doing what they have to do to preserve their jobs, rather than doing the right thing. The result is grievances that redirect attention away from holding people accountable. In addition, when complainants point to others who have been treated differently, it is a powerful argument before third parties.

So what is the next step after you have properly designed a people system? First and foremost, carefully train supervisors on the policies and how to apply them. The supervisors often are the ones who undermine the system because they lack knowledge about it, don’t know how to manage people, have a hard time getting good human resource management advice,  or they might have had negative experiences that deter them from taking action. Making an investment in supervisory development is crucial.

Next, you should develop a relentless focus on implementing the people system as intended. This includes frequent feedback sessions to let employees know how they are doing and to gain their input. It also means reviewing individual performance plans, issuing appropriate appraisals without predetermined bell curves, and providing proper justification for rewards. It’s also important to promptly deal with poor employees, even if it requires a lot of up front work. Otherwise, the cancer of low morale is likely to spread.

Here are a couple of good techniques for promoting accountability:

  • Issue employees monthly report cards, which will let them know how they are doing relative to their standards and their peers, show them how they are trending, and help them see a future action coming, if required.
  • Posting performance of individual employees who occupy multifaceted positions to foster group communication and peer pressure; provide employees with the context of their performance, which they rarely have access to; and prevent supervisors from protecting their favorites and targeting people they don’t like, since many pairs of eyes will be able to view this information.

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