Tackling the No-Accountability Wasteland

There is an uncomfortable, anxious pang that wells up in you when the halls have been empty for hours, and you know that you and the janitor are the only people in the building, again. You feel like maybe the fault is yours, that you aren’t quite working effective enough, that you could manage to get home at a reasonable hour if only you could better manage your time.

But you get sucked into tangential conversations all day. You find problems that need your attention at every turn. Every hallway conversation you overhear gives you the chills, fearing that people are going to act on the half-truths you hear spoken as gospel. Your only salvation (sigh) is that, for all the dis-information going around, little real action is being taken, so the many misunderstandings will remain just that. No one is responsible, no one is stepping up, and no one expects it.

You my friend are living in an No-Accountability Wasteland. (Alternatively, your expectations may simply be too dramatically out of step with the organization, in which case it will always feel like a wasteland, a sign that you probably haven’t found your right fit.)

I get how this happens. Status quo has been good enough for long enough. Change is viewed as rocking the boat. Challenging the norm is calling into question the environment that is in place, that is a reflection of today’s leadership. Many of those around you have a very real, vested stake in preserving the situation as it stands today.

Such wastelands are targets. Targets for acquisitions, targets for customer poaching by competitors, targets for talent scouts willing to take the last innovators out of your organization (assuming your not down to your C-stringers). Businesses operate in a dynamic environment, and must learn to flex with changing demands and competitive threats. If you still nuture a spark of aspiration and a hint of interest in furthering the lot of your fellow man, here are a few considerations for getting things turned around.

  • Preach (and monitor) Accountability through SMART goals. No one likes management by acronym, but SMART goals are brilliant. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. Being the frustrated but brilliant leader you are, find ways to ensure that your requests and requirements meet the SMART formula without explicitly spelling out the term.
  • ABS – Always be Shopping (not the brakes). Few love the perpetual state of recruitment, but if folks dodge tasks like the plague, you need to hit the streets. And your professional organizations; and your alumni network; and your past colleagues for referrals. You should always be looking to build a talent funnel – this is an exact parallel to the sales funnel, with everything from casual interactions to warm leads to hot candidates ready for offers. Human Capital Management – from prospecting through retention and development – must become as strategic a process as sales. If you want the best talent, you need to hire capable sales people into your HR organization, or continue to pay exorbitant fees to external parties to flood you with resumes that are meaningless.
  • Start Chanting, “You See It, You Own It”. Setting expectations for such ownership and managing to them drives quality into a business, even as it makes it abundantly clear that the apathy of coasters and free-riders won’t be an integral part of the future.
  • Keeping Brewing the Accountability Punch. No solo act goes unpunished for long, so broadening your base of change-agent constituents is mandatory. Remember that converts make the most rabid evangelists, so target a few key influencers within the organization with your Kool-Aid.

To be sure, few folks are actually charged with helping organizations change their cultural values, and it is the rare hiring manager that recognizes the important and time-consuming task that is influencing change. But if you are intent on building your career – and don’t want to be forging ahead alone – prepare to make substantial investments when you find no “there” there.

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4 Responses to Tackling the No-Accountability Wasteland

  1. Scot Herrick says:

    Reading this, I was confused by the perspective. Is it for people who work in cubes or for managers? There is a difference in what can be done by people depending upon the perspective.

    If it is for people who work in cubes, it is difficult to overcome a culture of non-accountability for anyone except your self and perhaps focusing on those people that provide stuff to you in your position.

    In fact, being too aggressive in an environment that isn’t accountable places you in the poor position of not going along. Your only answer here is to continue to perform — and get out.

    If it is on the perspective of the manager, it’s equally difficult to turn a culture around if the rest of the management team isn’t about accountability. Of course, this also hurts your ability to have work done by your reports since you being an accountability manager doesn’t square with the rest of the environment.

    Changing a culture is tough, tough, tough. Unless you are hired to change the culture — and you see the backing to do so once there — it’s better to just get out. Before you become unaccountable as well.

    A tough subject to write about — great to see it being addressed here.

  2. Toby Lucich says:

    I agree – perspective seems unclear in the writing. In large part, it is due to the fact that, in a cube or an office or a board room, I still see organizations having the same difficult conversations around accountability.

    You make good points on the challenges of change that rises from a grass-roots level, but this is often where it has the most long-lasting effect.

    I would hope that cube dwellers, managers, and executives alike might see an opportunity to push for change when struck by the wasteland observation.

    If one concludes that only executives can drive cultural change, then I’m inclined to think that 80% of the workforce may be actively looking for organizations that are in short supply.

  3. Gary Walter says:

    This was a great find as I explored FaceBook tonight. Just what I needed. Practical, doable, and a quick primer for those who are too clueless for their position.

    Thanks once again for expanding my vocabulary of functionality!

  4. Blake Barthelmess says:

    Cultural change… perhaps one of the most fundamentally difficult things to facilitate in an organization, particularly in the absence of “deliberate intention,” alignment, and co-conspirators.
    Albert Camus said “Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present.”
    Commitment represents will and dedication to achieve a goal – belief in the vision and the means to achieve it. Projecting these qualities onto a team of change agents builds trust and hence the foundation for enrolling people into the journey.
    However, that path can begin to meander or split as raw exhaustion sets in. I think another point worthy of remembering is the lethal nature of “but we have always done it this way.” Jack Welch, as he set about creating a high performance culture at GE, stated that “Our job is to provide a culture in which people can flourish and reach their dreams — in which they can be all they want to be.” That is developing a culture committed to continuous learning and helping people reach beyond themselves. That single concept is a difficult one to wrap heads around, particularly when you are specifically talking about a small, rural community supporting the exponential growth of a billion USD enterprise.

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