We all know what it’s like to be promised, “I’ll get back to you on that question,” only to never hear another word. Likewise, we’ve all dealt with colleagues who draft off of others’ achievements, salespeople who don’t stand behind their products when the crap hits the fan, and bosses who pass the buck far more often than they stop it. Chances are, when you come across these situations in your daily life, you chalk them up to customer service slip-ups, leadership breakdowns, personnel issues, and poor communication.
But according to Julie Miller and Brian Bedford, you can actually trace these problems back to something much more granular but no less serious: a lack of accountability.
“When employees behave with a lack of accountability, their actions hurt your bottom line, whether that’s through low personal productivity, negatively affecting morale, alienating coworkers and customers, or something else,” said Miller, coauthor with Bedford of Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s the Fix? “The good news is, if you’re vigilant and proactive, you can catch and handle these accountability issues before they grow into ‘customer service problems,’ ‘leadership breakdowns,’ and so on,” she said.
“If you’re a leader, it’s your job to hold your people responsible for what they do and don’t do,” Bedford noted. “That means rewarding behaviors that help your company grow and promptly addressing those actions and habits that have a more negative impact. Don’t wait for something to go majorly wrong to do damage control. Remember, accountability is built or broken in the day-to-day.”
In Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s the Fix?, Miller and Bedford examine what can happen when businesses, teams, families, and individuals shirk accountability. Here, they share ten types of accountability-sabotaging employees to watch out for:
The cavalier promise maker. We’ve all dealt with this person. “I’ll make sure I get back to you tomorrow.” “The product will be delivered by Thursday.” “Of course we can handle that order volume.” …Do these comments sound familiar? For the cavalier promise maker, it’s easy to promise someone the moon (especially if that promise makes the speaker look good!), but follow-through is a different story entirely.
“If someone in your organization fails to meet his commitments more than once or twice, he lacks accountability,” said Miller. “Over time, employees who fit this profile will cause your market share to drop, especially if you operate in the fast-moving consumer goods space. Customers who didn’t receive what was promised will take their business elsewhere, or even worse, take to the Internet to spread the word about their bad experience. These are the employees bad Yelp reviews are made of, and their lack of accountability will sink your business.”
The feel-good tagline spouter. “We put the customer first.” “Your best interests are our best interests.” “We’ll go the extra mile for you.” Sure, these assurances sound good, but only if they are supported by your employees’ actions. Watch out for individuals who spout platitudes while leaving customers unsatisfied.
“Employees—and by extension, companies—who put their own convenience before that of the customer will see a rapid migration of their customers to other suppliers,” noted Bedford. “Remember, your company’s stated values and policies aren’t worth much if they don’t match up with your individual employees’ attitudes, priorities, and behaviors. Your organization is accountable to its customers, and it’s crucial for your people to take that obligation personally. That means standing behind the product and taking ownership of any problems that crop up, regardless of inconvenience.”
The expense account swindler. We all know people who have doctored expense account forms for personal gain. (Maybe you’ve done so yourself at one time or another.) These folks are masters at justifying why they shelled out the company’s money for expensive meals, room service, entertainment, upgraded rental cars, and more. Sure, some of those expenditures may have been aimed at wooing a prospective client, but come on…no one really believes that the only vehicle the rental agency had to offer was a fully loaded Cadillac Escalade!
“In some organizations, expense account swindling is fairly isolated, while in others, it’s an unwritten part of the culture,” commented Miller. “Either way, this lack of financial accountability needs to stop now. Employees who don’t have a problem lying about their expenses are just as likely to lie about other things, and who knows what that could cost you.”
The thunder stealer. Chances are, you know exactly who this person (or people) is in your organization. Odds are also good that he/she isn’t popular. After all, nobody is fond of a coworker or leader who steals others’ ideas and presents them as their own! Sure, they might say, “Brilliant idea—great job!” to your face, but the next thing you know, they have incorporated that “brilliant idea” into their presentation to the board and claimed all the credit.
“This one really drives me crazy,” said Bedford. “It’s a clear accountability breach because the person in question is breaking the trust of her colleagues and representing herself dishonestly. If you don’t nip these behaviors in the bud, you’ll lose a lot of great employees who are sick and tired of working with their thunder-stealing colleagues, and you’ll damage your bottom line in the process. Employee turnover is a huge hidden cost of doing business.”
The “indispensable” tyrant. We’ve all had this boss, too. He/she is the person on whom the CEO relies to get the sales the company needs to meet its goals each quarter. Trouble is, this person treats everyone like dirt in the process. Screams, yells, insults, even threatens—no tyrannical tactic is out of bounds. The CEO may know (or at least suspect) that this leader is overly harsh, but lets their bad behavior slide because of the mistaken belief that the person is “indispensable.”
“In this instance, the tyrannical leader is showing a lack of accountability to subordinates and to the employer,” explained Miller. “Whether it’s codified in company policy or not, leaders should develop, challenge and motivate their teams in a way that doesn’t tank their morale. When tyrannical behaviors are allowed to continue, disillusioned employees eventually take their talents elsewhere, costing their former employers a fortune to attract and train a successor.”
The chronic latecomer. These are the people who screw up meetings, upset customers and suppliers, and give your company a bad name because they’re consistently tardy. You don’t necessarily see the financial impact immediately, but it’s all too apparent after your clients call you unreliable and go elsewhere.
“Sure, there are legitimate reasons why even the most responsible person might be running late: a fender bender, a sick child, an unfortunate coffee spill, to name just a few,” conceded Bedford. “And yes, everybody gets a pass on this one from time to time when life’s curveballs happen. But if it happens again and again with the same person, you’ve got a problem. In effect, this employee is saying, ‘I don’t value my employer’s time,’ or, ‘It’s not important to me to honor the agreement we made.’ And that’s not what accountability looks like.”
The mistake eraser. These people could just as easily be called “the paragon of perfection,” because according to them, they never, ever make a mistake. Over time, they has learned every trick in the book to cover up her missteps. They might tell themself, Well, last time this happened I just shredded the document, or, I’ll just delete the customer’s email again. No one noticed before.
“It’s easy to see how this type of lack of accountability can hurt your organization’s bottom line,” noted Miller. “If their self-serving behavior doesn’t immediately alienate customers and coworkers, when the deceptions come to light (and they always do), people will feel that much angrier and betrayed.”
The blame deflector. At first glance, this employee might seem to be a clone of the mistake eraser. And yes, the two of them do have quite a bit in common. But when you get right down to it, their MOs are different. While the mistake eraser pretends that nothing bad happened to start with, the blame deflector is all too happy to admit that a ball was dropped…by somebody else. It’s always someone else’s fault!
“When the boss is wondering where an error originated, this person’s ‘deflector shields’ come up immediately,” said Bedford. “‘Well, I was only doing what I was told,’ they might say. Or, ‘I didn’t misquote the price to that customer. They must have misheard.’ If these types of excuses come out of the same employee’s mouth on a regular basis, don’t fall for them. Remember, a big part of accountability is owning up to your own mistakes.”
The truth avoider. These people “just can’t handle the truth!” When someone calls them out—for dropping the ball, for behaving badly, etc.—their reaction isn’t pretty. Maybe they bursts into tears, sulk for days, stomp off indignantly, or angrily deny all charges.
“If an employee is offended instead of accepting that the other person has made a valid observation, they just killed their accountability,” pointed out Miller. “Denying or just having a bad attitude about what’s obviously true will cause their credibility and trustworthiness to take a significant hit. Other employees as well as customers won’t want to work with her.”
The white liar. When these people doesn’t want to spend time giving feedback, they might say, “That PowerPoint looks fine to me,” even though they knows it’s on the bland side. Or when they know they won’t be able to meet a deadline, they email the client and claim to have been out of commission for a few days due to the flu. “Do you mind if I take a few extra days to complete the project?” they will ask. “I want to make sure that I deliver the best possible work to you.”
“The white liar probably thinks he isn’t really hurting anyone with his fibs, but of course, that isn’t the case,” Bedford said. “Anytime an employee’s lack of total honesty impacts the quality of their own work, someone else’s work, or a client relationship, they have shown that they lack accountability.”
“Next time you think that a lack of accountability doesn’t have a price tag, just look at this list and think again!” concluded Miller. “When you notice any of these behaviors in any of your employees (or in yourself!), make sure to address the issue promptly. Explain why you object to the behavior and make sure the employee knows what consequences will be incurred if it continues.”
Bedford said, “Especially in today’s transparent business environment, your company’s accountability cannot be taken lightly. Safeguard it as the valuable commodity it is!”
In 2001, drawing on their respective years of experience in senior global leadership at Motorola, Julie Miller and Brian Bedford joined forces to establish MillerBedford Executive Solutions. The company helps businesses and organizations improve strategy, culture and leadership, while addressing issues that limit success. More information and the book is available at www.millerbedford.com. The book, "Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s the Fix?" is available from major online booksellers, too.