Accountability is a favourite word to invoke – when the lack of it has become so apparent. Its’s also a loaded word and political football in major sectors crying out for reform, such as health care and public education. Who should get what data about doctor success rates, hospital effectiveness, student achievement or school performance? What should be measured or tested? What should be done with the data? Should doctor reimbursement be outcome-based? What factors should be part of outcome measurement? Should teachers be held accountable for the academic success or failure of students?
In thriving organisations, detailed performance metrics, benchmarks for comparison and quantitative evaluations are a way of life. People are expected to examine themselves and their teams. Accountability, however, is still controversial in areas that the public cares about.
One reason that performance ratings are so threatening is that internal performance reviews are often done so poorly. They’re often robotic, annual bureaucratic exercises done largely to check off the boxes for salary purposes. In poor performing organisations, performance discussions don’t involve coaching about constructive actions for improvement. Nor do managers engage peers in reviewing performance data together to find solutions. Some managers are just as afraid to give feedback as staff are to receive it! Others use data for blame rather than improvement, turning performance reviews into weapons of persecution. It’s no wonder that people want to hide, yet that doesn’t help anyone do a better job.
In contrast, high performance organisations use information to help people improve. They give people abundant, timely and helpful data about their performance on a regular basis. Individually and as a group too.
Here’s some key steps to help ensure better accountability:
Ask questions, stress inquiry
Begin with agreement about goals, then to construct an inquiry-oriented dialogue. Did you do this, did you try that, what happened? Questions help people deconstruct the details of performance and consider alternatives, without becoming defensive.
Create humiliation-free zones
Performance metrics and reviews shouldn’t be intended to ‘name and shame’. Leaders can provide safe havens where dialogue can take place without making anyone feel put on the spot. Difficult issues can be discussed without assessing blame. The goal is to solve problems, not to hurl accusations or tear people down. Creating such a positive climate calls for a matter-of-fact, objective manner. Assume that people want to do the right thing and that data helps them know what the right thing is.
Break big goals into specific elements
Analysing the details that accumulate to produce either success or failure can make it easier to identify steps for improvement. It also makes it likely that people will feel proud of the things they already do well. The best performers pay attention to discreet actions rather than sweeping generalisations. This also makes it easier to find strengths as well as weaknesses.
Leaders build confidence when they name problems that everyone knows are there. They put performance data on the table for everyone to see and refuse to shift responsibility to some nameless ‘them’. When leaders accept responsibility (e.g. sharing their own performance ratings) it helps others get over their fear of exposure and humiliation.
The tools of accountability-data, results, metrics, measurements, analyses, charts, assessments and performance evaluations-are neutral. What matters is their interpretation, the manner of their use and the culture that surrounds them. In declining organisations, use of tools signals that people are watched too closely, not trusted or about to be punished. In successful organisations, they are vital tools that high achievers use to understand and improve performance regularly.
Those afraid of performance scrutiny (a club that reaches beyond health and education) will have to get over it. Transparency must reign. Data is increasingly easy to find, combine and report. Improving internal performance discussions can pave the way for ongoing performance improvements.