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The Power of Accountability

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Often confused with force, which is an attempt to get someone to do something against their will, power is generated when an individual attempts to accomplish something with his or her will. Power at its core is personal power.


The Driving Force for Success Comes From One Thing – Power

A Culture of Powerful Individuals

In an organization characterized as powerful, there exists a culture of individuals who:

  • Seek win/win situations
  • Take responsibility for controlling their own behaviors, thoughts, and emotions
  • Respect the autonomy of others
  • Are vision driven
  • Influence instead of demand or attempt to control

An organizational culture is determined by the collective behaviors and actions of its population. Regardless of what is stated as the culture (“We are a culture of strategic risk takers.” “We have a culture of respect for each other.”), the reality of your culture is demonstrated by the actions and attitudes of your people. (If no one takes risks for fear of failure or reprimand, your organization is demonstrating a risk adverse culture. If everyone shows up late to meetings, doesn’t show up all, or they are unprepared, your organization is demonstrating a culture of disrespect for others). In order to change the real culture of your organization, we need to change the behaviors of the individuals that make up the collective population.

Individual behavior changes when employees come from a powerful mindset instead of a powerless one. To do this, each individual must become accountable for the one and only thing in his control – himself. This accountability of the individual is the driving force behind creating the one requirement for success – a culture of power.

These are not unrealistic expectations on our parts, as leaders, but in order to adopt this culture of power, people need to first understand how their powerless mentalities (Victim and Forceful) affect their ability to have the power of accountability.

The Victim Mentality in the Organization

I remember sitting with a team of upper-level managers at a large company, who were seeking solutions to the problems they faced. We brainstormed what those problems were. They listed all the problems with their subordinates. Then I challenged them to think about their own behaviors. They listed all the problems they faced because of their bosses. So, I challenged them again. “What is it that you do that feeds these problems?”

It was like pulling teeth. Finally, after much discussion and challenge, they finally acknowledged that they created a few problems of their own; however, they explained, these were the results of decisions and behaviors of those above them. I wondered at the time if there was any level in this organization that didn’t feel victimized.

The victim mentality we find in our organizations is a left-over side effect of the old siloed, authority-based management approach. Given that everything in this paradigm positions individuals in the hierarchy as those ‘with power over another individual,’ everyone ends up being a victim of those around them. Even at the top, the CEO can be a victim of the stock analysts and Board of Directors.

When the victim mentality permeates an organization, you find employees who are disgruntled and angry. Often these feelings are the result of the following when an employee:

Having a victim culture in your organization is like a deadly virus. It robs people of their will to succeed and they become passive riders rather than drivers. They take few risks, and although they may seem like good employees because they take direction easily and don’t rock the boat, they are never ever accountable for anything, which translates to little or nothing getting done.

The Forceful Mentality in the Organization

The opposite of the victim is the forceful individual. When a forceful mentality permeates an organization we find employees who are bullies and disrespectful. Often these behaviors result when an employee:

These employees are the robbers of the powerful organization who seek and feed on the victims in the organization. Although these employees can appear to be successful in a siloed organization because they have the authority to control others through fear, in the cross-functional matrix this type of behavior does not play well since most goals are accomplished in a team environment and forceful individuals are death to team collaboration.

Using Accountability to Create Power

One of the most effective ways to create a culture of power is to deploy individual accountability in a healthy, functional way so it creates powerful individuals. There are four stages of the accountability cycle.

Stage 1

Define and negotiate goals that are realistic. As soon as you tell employees what they should produce or give them goals that are impossible to achieve, you set them up to use force to achieve that goal or to become victims and give up. Instead, use a collaborative process for identifying goals that are aligned with a broader goal and be open to discussion that includes employee responses of “yes” “no” or “yes, if…” When employees have the power to negotiate goals that keep them in control of their destinies, they will be able to take action and make that destiny a reality.

Stage 2

Allow time to plan and implement the goal. More often than not, everything we do in an organization is executed through a team. When leaders give employees goals (deliverables) that require them to lead a team and then you don’t allow them to plan or have enough time for implementation, you are creating a dysfunctional environment that doesn’t position anyone for success. Goals are nothing more then dreams of what we hope to achieve. Planning is the power to create the path to achieving that dream. When you set a team on a path without a roadmap for reaching the end goal, you position them for one thing – failure.

Employees in the victim mindset give up before they begin. Employees in the forceful mindset behave with an ‘end justifies the means’ attitude and will run over anyone who gets in their way. However, when you permit sufficient time for planning, individuals and teams are now in control of ‘proving’ whether the dreams we have for our organizations are realistic. If they prove that the goal is unattainable and make the necessary adjustments to create a more realistic goal, they can accept accountability to make that goal happen without forcing anyone to bend to their will.

Stage 3

Learn. This is the most important stage for both leaders and individuals. Here, we determine if the accountability that the employee accepted in stage 1 and planned and implemented in stage 2 was fulfilled. The critical piece of this stage is that you are not discussing blame. As leaders, you must ensure that the conversation taking place during this stage remains focused on ‘what’ happened and ‘why’ versus ‘who’ did or did not do something to or for the employee. This process needs to open and honest.

Stage 4

Consequences. Now, just permitting employees to have power over their destinies (through the acceptance of accountability) and expecting the employees coming from a victim or forceful mindsets to automatically change is unrealistic. As human beings, our ability to change is driven by our readiness to change. No matter what, in life, there are consequences for our behaviors.

The same holds true for our organizations. When you introduce a culture of accountability in your organization, employees may or may not be able to accept and contribute to achieving this new culture. Therefore, you must apply positive or negative consequences based on whether employees have met their accountability or not and the types of behaviors which led them there.

In the end, these consequences must always be linked to an employee’s fulfillment of accountability and their ability to learn from their mistakes. When positioned right, using accountability will help create powerful employees in the organization who take risks, are proactive, and keep moving forward to do one thing – achieve goals.

Want More?

Check out our training program, Accountability in a Matrix

Cathy Cassidy

As the Managing Director of the International Matrix Management Institute, Cathy helps organizations and practitioners adopt the skills and methods they need to succeed in today’s complex, dynamic environment. She is a Matrix Management 2.0™ Master Consultant and the author of several books on matrix management, including her most recent publication, Managing Projects in a Matrix. She is a key contributor to the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, co-developer of the Matrix Management 2.0™ organizational operating system, and a lead developer for the company.