High-Trust Culture #4: Everyone’s Accountable

January 29, 2014 /LinkedIn/ – Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read, famously, “The Buck Stops Here.” What most people don’t know is that the message continued on the back.

The side facing the President read, “I’m From Missouri.” Truman, a native of the “Show-Me” state, knew that when you’ve been entrusted with power, you’re accountable for how you use it. In Truman’s Missouri, that meant “showing” results.

An organization that wants to empower its team members doesn’t give out power haphazardly, like it’s writing blank checks. Instead, empowerment needs to come with terms attached, so people know how their results will be measured. Without accountability, power brings out the worst in people — and tyrannical behavior can undermine the trust an organization has built up over time. Trust grows, on the other hand, when expectations are clear, when people know what they’ve been empowered to do, and when they can focus on doing it.

So if you want to create a culture where trust is secured by accountability, make sure people understand the following:

1. Accountability starts with asking ‘what does winning look like?’: We all know it’s easier to succeed if you have a clear sense of what you’re trying to get done. Without clarity around outcomes, no one can be accountable. Leaders should start with a clear vision that everyone can remember – not only with budgets and time frames, but also with specific results that team members “own” and celebrate. Beware of setting goals without ways to measure and assess final results. Without accountability, objectives become vague wishes that will eventually erode trust.

2. Accountability requires clear expectations: Say you’re given authority to build a new facility, and that you’re responsible for its timely, cost-effective completion. Now, imagine that no one gives you a budget, a timetable, a list of aesthetic requirements, or any other measure that would help assess your work. You proudly get the building done in 18 months for $40 million, only to learn that the people who had ‘empowered’ you expected it six months sooner and $10 million cheaper. You had the power. You took responsibility. But no one set upaccountability for completion dates, finances, or other requirements. That’s the kind of pseudo-empowerment that ends careers. Unfortunately, in many organizations, the trio of power, responsibility and accountability get separated. This leaves no one fully empowered.

3. Accountability enhances trust: Many leaders are happy to give team members the power to carry out all kinds of assignments and tasks. But that’s not enough. Unless people are given responsibility for big-picture outcomes, they may feel leaders don’t trust them with the important stuff. On the other hand, if leaders are willing to trust them with overall objectives, most teams rise to the challenge. When team members succeed, the best leaders step aside and allow them to take credit. And if teams should stumble, the most trustworthy leaders step in to absorb the blame. Nothing kills trust faster than a leader who calls shots and makes assignments, only to blame everyone else when things go wrong. Trust wilts in the presence of leaders who absorb the limelight, and it grows when they reflect it on their team members.

If you haven’t spent much time in a high-trust environment, accountability may initially feel likemistrust. Some people might ask, “Is it really trust if you’re asked to constantly account for the power you’ve been granted?” The answer is yes. In order to survive and grow, organizational trust has to be protected from misuse. Without accountability, trust doesn’t have a chance.

There’s no point in trusting someone if what they do with our trust doesn’t come close to what we expect. Conversely, it’s no good being trusted if we’re not sure what we’re supposed to do with that person’s trust. If we don’t have a clear sense of accountability, we may lose that person’s trust altogether, even when we act in good faith.

In that way, accountability illuminates trust, and gives people the clarity and confidence they need to live up to it.

By Joel Peterson

Up Next: Trust is lost without Vision


Photos: Marshall Astor / Flickr