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Last week we introduced the brand new second edition of The Florence Prescription: From Accountability to Ownership and launched The Florence Challenge for a More Positive Healthcare Culture at the annual conference of the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) conference in Orlando. A very special welcome to our newest readers who are nurse leaders!

Why Holding People "Accountable" So Often Backfires


Note: Substitute the word "parent" for "manager" and "family" for "organization" and you might find that this article applies at home as well as at work.

The management buzzword of the 1990s was "empowerment." The management buzzword of the past decade has been "accountability." It's an interesting swing of the pendulum, when you think about it. Empowerment is giving someone a pat on the shoulder; accountability is looking over someone's shoulder. Self-empowerment is intrinsic motivation; being held accountable is extrinsically imposed motivation. Empowered people will walk across hot coals because they are motivated; unmotivated people need to be held accountable by having their feet held to the fire. It almost seems that we fall back on "holding people accountable" when we have been unsuccessful at empowering them to hold themselves accountable.

At Values Coach we've worked with organizations that have put quite a bit of effort into various initiatives to "hold people accountable," often with dismaying results. After an initial improvement in whatever measure they're trying to hold people accountable for achieving - patient or customer satisfaction, productivity or sales, etc. - things go back to where they were before, if not worse. I think there are at least six reasons why a focus on accountability is so often so futile.

Reason #1: Accountability implies irresponsibility

When you tell someone that you're going to "hold them accountable" for something, it sends a subtle but unmistakable message that you don't believe they can be trusted to hold themselves accountable. The IRS holds people accountable for getting their taxes in by April 15 because it knows they can't be trusted to do it voluntarily, but no one needs to be held accountable for making it to the dock on time to board a cruise ship. Home owners mow their lawns because they have pride of ownership; renters need to be held accountable for cutting the grass. People who take pride in their work, their organizations, their professions, and themselves don't need to be held accountable for memorizing a script and wearing a happy face pin to provide great customer service or compassionate patient care - they do it because they are intrinsically motivated, not because someone is holding their feet to the fire.

Reason #2: Holding people accountable is exhausting

It takes a lot of management energy to hold people accountable. Giving someone a script and a happy face pin won't make them a great customer service performer if they don't take ownership for the work. Managers must monitor whether they are wearing the pin (and wearing it right-side up and not upside down) and whether they are actually repeating the script (and not doing it in such a way that it's obvious they're just parroting the words in a sarcastic tone of voice). The more time and energy a manager must spend holding people accountable, the less time and energy that manager has for the more creative and productive work of leadership. It's something we see over and over - I've come to think of it as "accountability fatigue."

Reason #3: Accountability focuses on rules, not values

You don't hold people accountable for living values, you hold them accountable for following rules. When people share in a common set of values, you don't need to have a lot of rules. The Nordstrom department store is famous for customer service excellence. In HR circles the company is also famous for its two-sentence policy manual which simply says: "In every situation use your best judgment. There will be no additional rules." Nordstrom employees don't need to be held accountable for going above and beyond the terms of their job descriptions - they do it because they have taken ownership for the work. A recent Business Week cover story wrote about the "ecstatic employees" at values-driven Costco; rule-bound Walmart has never been accused of having ecstatic employees.

Reason #4: You cannot hold people accountable for the things that really matter

People can only be held accountable for things that can be measured (break down the word "a-count-able" and you get "able to be counted"). People cannot be held accountable for commitment, enthusiasm, passion, pride, or caring. These things must come from an inner conviction, an intrinsic sense of ownership. You can make people salute but you can't make them laugh. In 1968 I worked at a McDonald's restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island. To this day I remember McDonald's core values of QVSC - Quality, Value, Service, and Cleanliness. The man who taught me those values was the same man who taught me how to clean a toilet and scrape gum off the parking lot pavement - the franchise owner. During the noontime rush we performed like an Indy 500 pit crew - not because the manager was holding us accountable, but because he had instilled such an incredible sense of pride that we held ourselves - and each other - accountable for operating at the highest levels.

Reason #5: Accountability is always after the fact and often demotivating

You empower people to do the things that need to be done in the future; you hold people accountable for the things that have, or have not, been done in the past. You can empower a nurse to practice at the top of her professional capabilities - you hold her accountable when she fails the test. You can motivate a salesperson to make calls - you hold him accountable for not making sales. Imagine yourself going home at the end of the day and saying to your family: "Today I was held accountable for..." Can you think of anything - anything at all - that would allow you to finish that sentence in a way that would make your family proud of you and you proud of yourself and that would motivate you to go into work tomorrow with a little more swagger in your step?

Reason #6: Accountability will never take an organization from good to great

I recently read through Fortune magazine's annual listings of America's most admired companies and America's 100 best places to work. Not one of these organizations earned a place on these rosters by promoting a culture of accountability. To be sure, they all have standards of behavior and performance to which people are held accountable, but they all appreciate that these are minimal standards - they are the price of entry for being in business. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Zappos, and Nordstrom don't need to expend a lot of management energy on holding people accountable because they have created cultures of ownership where people hold themselves accountable. That is, I've come to believe, the "secret sauce" the most successful organizations use to create sustainable competitive advantage for recruiting and retaining great people and for earning what loyalty expert Fred Reichheld calls "barnacle like" customer loyalty.

My book All Hands on Deck: 8 Essential Lessons for Building a Culture of Ownership (available at this Amazon link) featured lessons from legendary business leaders like Bill and Dave at Hewlett-Packard and Mary Kay Ash at Mary Kay Cosmetics created ownership cultures that endured for decades beyond the passing of the founders. I'm now doing research for a sequel that will look at how some of today's best business leaders are building the same sorts of cultures. In every one of these companies, the primary focus for building a great culture has been on ownership, not on accountability.

The accountability that matters most

Make no mistake, there must be accountability in organizations. Accountants must be accountable for getting the math right, nurses must be accountable for giving the right medication to a patient, housekeepers must be accountable for keeping the place clean. The real question is whether they are holding themselves accountable (a culture of ownership) or need to be held accountable by a boss (a culture of accountability). When people feel a sense of ownership for the work they don't need to be held accountable for doing the job.

Tuesday's Promise of The Self-Empowerment Pledge is Accountability. It says: "I will not allow low self-esteem, self-limiting beliefs, or the negativity of others to prevent me from achieving my authentic goals and becoming the person I am meant to be." (You can download my slide show on The Pledge at this link). Note carefully - nobody can hold you accountable for these things. The accountability that matters most is the accountability to which we hold ourselves.

Today's BookSpark: From Accountability to Ownership

"You can hold people accountable for showing up on time and for fulfilling the terms of their job descriptions, like parents checking a report card, but you cannot hold them accountable for being committed and engaged. You cannot hold people accountable for caring. It takes a spirit of ownership for those things to happen."

Joe Tye: The Florence Prescription: From Accountability to Ownership

You can order copies of The Florence Prescription for just $5 per book by calling the Values Coach office at 319-624-3889 or online at


phone: 319-624-3889

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