Courage plus accountability equals a performance culture

Courage and accountability are the twin pillars of any performance culture. Make it your mission to lead the way.

By Roger Perry

As experienced leaders we have all seen it: the failed attempt to deliver a cultural transformation. The glitzy launch, the fanfare, the hope and promise of a better place to work. However, already present, there is the hidden scepticism, and sometimes blatant cynicism. Then follows the slow decline, until eventually, the whole affair is swept quietly under the carpet.

Yet it need not be that way. If culture is really the aggregating term for an organisation’s beliefs, customs and behaviours, then leaders can spawn healthy cultures in their own enterprises. The keys to sustaining the course are courage and accountability.

Courage is required because leaders must stay focused on the change. This is hard when encountering the difficulties that arise whenever you ask for changes in long-trodden behavioural pathways. There will be delays, obfuscation and even downright intellectual dishonesty. There will be back-sliding, questioning and denial that the change will stick. Courage is required to deliver the three imperatives of any change: people need to believe the change is a good idea; they need to see a benefit to them, or to someone they care about; and they need to believe it is possible.

Only courage will see you through the proof points needed for staff to believe that the change is possible. Good conceptualisation and communication might convince some people that the change is a good idea, and that there is a benefit to someone close, but the main challenge is convincing staff that the change will really happen. For them to believe it is possible that the organisation can change, you need to demonstrate the change: provide a role-model, each and every day, of the behaviours that you so ardently expect others to deliver.

Accountability in particular is required if you wish to create the desired performance culture. In such cultures there is a recognition that great customer service and outstanding professionalism have their own inherent value. For these teams, the pressure for constant improvement is not delivered from the top, but comes from within. In essence, this is a state where staff hold themselves accountable.

Courage is required to create such cultures of accountability, because the act of creation may mean taking public and very personal ownership of any failures. It may also mean helping others to be accountable for their own behaviour and results.There is an old saying that in poor cultures “success equals failure plus an excuse”. This is the norm that must be broken if you are to lead the way towards a true performance culture.

However, the principles of accountability must be delicately deployed. It is critical to realise that a good decision can only lead to a higher probability of a good outcome, not a guarantee of success. So in building a culture of accountability, ensure that you leave room for management and staff to innovate and experiment without punishment. Certainly, leaders and teams need to own their results. However, they need to own such results in aggregate with permission to experiment intelligently. Reward the positive trajectory and give room for innovation and flair, but on a scale that does not break the enterprise.

Ultimately, whenever you want to change the culture of your organisation, public or private, division or whole enterprise, then it starts with you. You must have the courage to hold the course, to demonstrate accountability and to expect it of others. You must also have the courage to challenge your teams when they behave poorly, and allow them to challenge you should you go off course. Some staff will fall by the wayside, choosing other paths more suited to their personal values. This should be respectfully embraced because alignment of values helps to build a healthy culture. All of this takes courage, and the accountability starts with you.

See the original article published in CEO Magazine here.

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Roger Perry is the Managing Director of the Bevington Group, and one of the region’s foremost productivity improvement and organisational design experts. He has been an Assignment Director and Steering Committee member on over 40 transformation programs.