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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

The question of how to create and sustain accountability for behavior is one that comes up regularly in business. The answer to this question is clear, but it’s not easy.

Hello Kitty

08 August 2007

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The New York Times reported yesterday that police officers in Bangkok who violate minor laws or policies themselves will be required to wear a mark of shame. Their choice of shameful object? A pink Hello Kitty armband with linked hearts. Their police chief reported that other measures of minor reprimand had not worked, and they hoped this “cute icon for young girls” would induce levels of shame that adult conscience was unable to produce. Wow. Psychologists and feminists around the world have to be having a really good time with that one.
The question of how to create and sustain accountability for behavior is one that comes up regularly in business. The answer to this question is clear, but it’s not easy. There are some things you can control, and others you can not.
You can not create an accountable individual. You can only hire one. The fundamental attributes that must be present to ensure accountability are self-respect, an even deeper respect for others, honesty, courage, humbleness, confidence, and a genuine desire to improve oneself. There isn’t a management trainer or inspiring leader in the world who can cause those traits to exist in an adult where they did not exist before. And possessing some but not all of those traits won’t cut it. Self respect + honesty + courage + desire to improve oneself without the other traits gives you an overly confident human being who does not value others, may be threatened by those smarter than them, and can’t learn from them. Not much accountability there. Play around with the list yourself, leave a few things (or only one thing) out, and see whether or not you have a recipe for accountability. You definitely have to hire for accountability.
A business can construct systems that drive responsibility. Too many business managers and professionals don’t understand that there is a science to designing an effective business machine. They approach business design like casual cooking. When you are cooking, if you understand a lot of basic ingredients, you can mix them for reasonably good results without looking at a recipe. Ever wonder why someone else’s dishes consistently taste better than yours? They probably understand the rules better, which ultimately leads to being able to improvise better. Baking is unforgiving. There is a specific chemical interaction that must occur for the basic ingredients to transform into an excellent baked good. Unless you are a very accomplished baker (i.e., understand all the basic rules), you better follow the recipe.
You can run a business like a casual cook and do OK some of the time (businesses run by casual bakers fail in just a few years). But if you want to get great results more consistently, you have to understand the fundamental rules and how they interact to drive successful business execution. Creating systems that result in performance is part of both the organizing and the controlling functions of management. Organizing includes structuring workgroups to create clear lines of responsibility, and staffing them with the right skills and attributes to ensure the work can be done competently. Controlling includes designing measurement systems that visibly and regularly monitor performance and quickly highlight things that are out of tolerance. Without these systems, you won’t know what performance you are looking for, your employees won’t know what performance to deliver, and unaccountable individuals will skate around in the margin enjoying the ride.
When you have designed the right organizing and control environment, individuals who are not accountable will either drive themselves to behave accordingly, or will be recognized and removed.
There is nothing more frustrating than observing substandard performance, not being able to put your finger on why the performance is substandard, or suspecting that individuals are aware and unapologetic about their uninspiring contribution. I suppose you could have a bunch of pink Hello Kitty armbands made up, or find another scarlet letter with which to brand the folks who either actively game the system or barely manage to show up for work at all. But my guess is that those pretty pink armbands will become another fun way to joke about personal deficiencies while refusing to improve. To belabor the cooking analogy a little further, if you only buy the best ingredients, and faithfully follow the inherent rules of the process, you can cook up an accountable environment that feels better to everyone.

(c) Andrea M. Hill, 2007