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How Cultural Norms Influence Accountability Behaviors

6 October, 2015 - 11:46

In many organizations, there is not a cultural focus on being accountable and getting results. Indeed, five “crippling habits” deeply embedded in an organizational culture are (a) absence of clear directives, (b) lack of accountability, (c) rationalizing inferior performance, (d) planning in lieu of action, and (e) aversion to risk and change.  1

There are many explanations for these negative habits. One is that senior executives consciously or unconsciously neglect their responsibility for executing the strategy well. Forming a brand new strategy is exciting, garners attention from external stakeholders, and happens rather quickly. In contrast, executing an existing strategy requires attention to detail, is often not noticed outside of an organization, and takes a long time to manifest an effect. Hence, making an organization accountable is often not “sexy” to senior leaders. 2

Another reason why organizational cultures do not hold members accountable is what is known as the “smart talk trap.” This phenomenon refers to organizational cultures that emphasize talk over action, looking good over getting results, and sounding intelligent rather than delivering results. Managers sometimes let talk substitute for action because that is what they have been trained to do. In addition, there is a human propensity to assume intelligence for those who talk with complex words and focus on hard-to-understand concepts. Unfortunately, complex words and concepts are often difficult to execute. And finally, studies have shown that individuals who criticize ideas are often judged to be smarter than individuals who attempt to be helpful and constructive. While critical thinking is clearly needed in organizations, it often does not lead to constructive action.  3

Whatever the reason for lack of accountability within an organization, organizational cultures are central to making the organization change capable. Indeed, there is a “hard side” to change management and it centers on keeping people accountable and getting organizationally important results. Prescribing desired results, clarifying responsibility, measuring performance, rewarding those who meet or exceed expectations, and challenging those who do not are all integral to an organization’s norms, values, and assumptions about the way things get done. Accountability is a cultural mind-set, and accountable behaviors emerge from organizational cultures that value it.