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Accountability means being held answerable for accomplishing a goal or assignment. Unfortunately, the word "accountability" often connotes punishment or negative consequences. Certainly, management should not tolerate poor performance and should take action when it occurs. However, when organizations use accountability only as a big stick for punishing employees, fear and anxiety permeate the work environment. Employees are afraid to try new methods or propose new ideas for fear of failure. On the other hand, if approached correctly, accountability can produce positive, valuable results.
The positive results of practicing a constructive approach to accountability include:
These positive results occur when employees view accountability programs as helpful and progressive methods of assigning and completing work. For example, managers who involve employees in setting goals and expectations find that employees understand expectations better, are more confident that they can achieve those expectations, and perform at a higher level. Positive results also occur when employees don't associate accountability only with negative consequences. If employees do not fear failure, if managers recognize employees for their accomplishments, and if managers support their employees when goals become difficult, employees are more likely to be creative, innovative, and committed to their work.
Arguments for practicing constructive accountability are overwhelming. In his book, The Accountability Revolution, Mark Samuel says that "accountability means people can count on one another to keep performance commitments and communication agreements." According to Samuel, accountability can result in increased synergy, a safe climate for experimentation and change, and improved solutions because people feel supported and trusted. All of these positive results create higher employee morale and satisfaction.
Managers can practice accountability for positive results by following good performance management principles. They can use their agencies' performance appraisal programs to establish expectations in employee performance plans and use formal awards programs to recognize employees. However, merely following the minimum requirements of formal programs is not enough to create the positive environment necessary for constructive accountability. Managers need to:
Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that some agencies are not building the types of cultures where constructive accountability thrives. The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently surveyed 3,816 full-time mid- and upper-level managers on their perceptions about performance and management issues. In their report, Managing for Results: Federal Managers' Views Show Need for Ensuring Top Leadership Skills (October, 2000), GAO found that while 63 percent of managers said they were held accountable for the results of their programs, only 36 percent of them said they had the authority they needed to accomplish strategic goals. GAO observes that "such an imbalance can inhibit the development of an environment conducive to achieving results." Also, GAO reports that only 31 percent of managers said that employees received positive recognition for helping to achieve organizational goals. If managers are going to hold employees accountable for results, they also need to recognize employees for their efforts.
Overall, shifting to constructive accountability may require a culture change, but managers will find the results well worth the effort.
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