Module 9: Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change - Communication, Accountability and Innovation

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Accountable Culture

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Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change

Communication, Accountability and Innovation

Accountable Culture

What Does It Mean To be Accountable?

Accountability refers to an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.

When individuals are accountable, they understand and accept the consequences of their actions for the areas in which they assume responsibility. When roles are clear and people are held accountable, work gets done efficiently and effectively.

Furthermore, constructive change and learning is possible when accountability is the norm. When roles are not clear and people are not held accountable, work does not get done properly, and learning is not possible.

Accountability is necessary in an organization - People need to know their roles!

What Is an Organizational Culture?

While there are many definitions of organizational culture, one of the clearest was offered by Edgar Schein. He defined organizational culture as:

A pattern of basic assumptions developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration-that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. [1]

Schein argued that there are three levels of culture in an organization

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The most visible level of culture is where observable organizational artifacts such as technology, art, dress, pictures, architecture, and audible behavior occur.

The intermediate level of organizational culture is the beliefs about what the purpose of the organization is, and what gives meaning to its existence.

And finally, at the deepest unconscious level within an organization, there are assumptions about human nature, human relations, time, and the organizational and environmental interface.

How Cultural Norms Influence Accountability Behaviors

Accountability is a cultural mind-set, and accountable behaviors emerge from organizational cultures that value it.

In many organizations, there is not a focus on being accountable.

Whatever the reason for lack of accountability within an organization, organizational cultures are central to making the organization change capable.

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Five “crippling habits” deeply embedded in an organizational culture are:

Absence of clear directives

Lack of accountability

Rationalizing inferior performance

Planning in lieu of action

Aversion to risk and change. [2]

Cultural Accountability and Organizational Capacity for Change

A major book devoted to creating accountability argues that many leaders and leadership training courses neglect the fact that leadership is about getting desired results. In their own words:

Results-based leaders define their roles in terms of practical action. They articulate what they want to accomplish and thus make their agendas clear and meaningful to others. Employees willingly follow leaders who know both who they are and what they are doing. Such leaders instill confidence and inspire trust in others because they are direct, focused, and consistent. [3]

They argue that accountability is the means for achieving results.

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They state:

Organizations may learn, change, and remove boundaries, but if they lack accountability and discipline, success will elude them over time.

Accountability comes from discipline, processes, and ownership. Discipline requires getting work done with rigor and consistency, meeting scheduled commitments, and following through on plans and programs to deliver promises.

Process accountability may require reengineering how work gets done, reducing redundant efforts, and driving down costs at every level. With accountability comes ownership, as individuals feel responsible for accomplishing work.

Leaders who foster accountability continuously improve how work gets done, deliver high-quality products and services, and ensure commitment from all employees. [4]

Practices for Building the Trusting Followers Dimension

If you are interested in building an accountable culture within your organization, the following are some actionable ideas that you can pursue to make that a reality.

Try to implement some of the following practices in order to develop an accountable culture in your organization!

Practice 1: Begin With a Focus on Results Being Sought

Effective accountability means that there is a clear understanding of the results being sought throughout the entire organization.

This requires intense thought and ongoing dialogue about what the organization’s purpose is, and what it is trying to achieve. It starts with a clear understanding of the overall mission of the organization and then cascades down into performance standards expected for each and every individual within that organization.

Without asking the question as to “what is wanted” before deciding how to do it, organizational members who act without full knowledge of the results required may work harder but accomplish less. [5]

If everyone in the organization knows what is expected of them there will be an increase in accountability!

Practice 2: Assign Responsibility for Results to Everyone in the Organization

If your organization has difficulty assigning responsibility for results, consider responsibility charting.

But not all responsibility can be assigned in advance. Sometimes individuals volunteer to be accountable for certain results in special circumstances.

Stories are an effective tool for eliciting volunteers to become more accountable, particularly when the story involves a previous member of the organization who overcame overwhelming odds to deliver extraordinary results.

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This technique is essentially a matrix with results desired in one column, and individuals in an organizational unit in the other columns. Matrix entries specify who is responsible for what and, if possible, when results are expected.

With this relatively simple approach, responsibility and clarity is much more clear, especially if there is a review of the results achieved when compared with the results desired.

Practice 3: Leaders Should Demonstrate the Behaviors That Align With the Change

Culture change starts and gains momentum with changed behavior on the part of the leaders of that organization or organizational unit.

Nothing kills a change initiative faster than leaders who espouse certain behaviors and attitudes, but demonstrate different ones.

In addition, leaders need to be careful as to behaviors that they tolerate. If results are being stressed and their subordinate does not deliver results, then there needs to be demonstrable consequences.

This applies to both meeting the numbers and behaving consistently with the organization’s values. Indeed, it has been observed that if a nonperformer gets high enough in the organizational hierarchy and is not held accountable, that person can literally destroy the organization.

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For example, if a leader announces the importance of controlling costs more carefully, but then he or she arranges for a lavish executive retreat or
decorates his or her office in excessive ways, the rest of the organization takes notice.

Hence, leaders need to exercise care in the behaviors they exhibit. [7]

Practice 4: Measure the Right Performance Standards and Do It Rigorously

Rigorous standard setting is essential if an accountable culture is being sought. [8]

It is a skill to link desired results and goals with standards and metrics of performance. If a performance standard is done well, achievement of that standard will realize the results being sought.

Designing realistic timetables is not easy to do well, and it is particularly difficult for large, complicated projects.

For those change initiatives that have an extended time horizon, intermediate milestones must be set with care.

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Clearly, performance measures need to be balanced or else the organization risks becoming unbalanced. Consequently, this suggests that multiple performance standards are required.

However, if the performance standards are too numerous, then assessing performance is no longer possible. Overall, focusing on a relatively few, balanced performance standards works best for making the organization more accountable. [8]

Practice 5: Discuss Assumptions Underlying Actions Dealing With Accountability

The fastest but perhaps most challenging way to change an organizational culture is to change the assumptions underlying that culture.

Since culture is the “taken-for-granted” way of doing things within an organization, this is not an easy task.

Surfacing and debating assumptions is the means by which cultural change is achieved, Bossidy and Charan note:

“Debate on assumptions is one of the most critical parts of any operating review-not just the big- picture assumptions but assumptions specifically linked with their effects on the business, segment by segment, item by item. That’s a key part of what’s missing in the standard budget review. You cannot set realistic goals until you’ve debated the assumptions behind them.” [9]

Practice 6: Make Sure That the Reward System Focuses on Accountability

A key aspect of accountability means that there are consequences to meeting or not meeting performance standards.

This suggests that the reward and recognition system needs to celebrate and reward those who consistently deliver results and develop a reputation for accountability, and it needs to confront and punish those who consistently fail to deliver results. [10]

Most employees like knowing where they stand in terms of performance, and the performance evaluation system is central to making an organization accountable.

Make sure to take time to consider how accountability will be rewarded within the organization!


[1] Schein (1985). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Prosen (2006). Five crippling habits: Are they attacking your organization from within? SuperVision, 67(12), 6-8.

[3] Ulrich, Zenger, & Smallwood (1999). Results-based leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

[4] Ulrich, Zenger, & Smallwood (1999). Results-based leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

[5] Ulrich, Zenger, & Smallwood (1999). Results-based leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

[6] Wines and Hamilton (2009).On changing organizational cultures by injecting new ideologies: The power of stories. Journal of Business Ethics, 89(3), 433-457.

[7] Bossidy and Charan (2002). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York, NY: Crown.

[8] Osborne (1993). The supervisor’s role in managing change. Supervisory Management, 38(3), 3.

[9] Bossidy and Charan (2002). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York, NY: Crown.

[10] Kerr and Slocum (2005). Managing corporate culture through reward systems. Academy of Management Executive, 19(4), 130-150.

[11] Kerr (1975). On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B. Academy of Management Journal, 18, 769-783.


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