Are Managers in Your Organization Truly Accountable for Results?


By Michael Patterson

In any organization, the best-performing managers embody rare qualities: they produce consistently high-quality results and take personal ownership of the outcomes of their actions. In a word, they are accountable. However, they are not “accountable” in the traditional sense. Conventional wisdom says that one person can hold another “accountable” in order to get something done—by using techniques ranging from polite asking, to threats, to complex performance management systems. Of course, people may comply to avoid undesirable consequences, but that’s not true accountability. Real accountability is a choice: people decide to take personal responsibility for their actions and the outcomes those actions produce.

To improve performance in today’s increasingly challenging business arena, organizations must foster a culture of “accountability by choice.” Such a culture enables people to take initiative, innovate, and make smart decisions about business imperatives such as helping and developing others, directing action, and establishing meaningful order. But to foster such a culture, organizations need to show people how to correctly assess what is happening in a given, high-stakes situation—such as when a key customer defects, a project misses a critical deadline, or a negotiation shuts down. By accurately assessing a situation, people can then determine how best to interact with others to get needed results, including how to work through an interpersonal conflict. For example, they can decide whether it is time to be forceful with a particular stakeholder or supportive, or whether it would be better to move forward cautiously with that stakeholder or take swift action.

Moreover, organizations need to teach people to look beyond their handful of familiar “go-to” behaviors when deciding how to approach a high-stakes situation. If people are not aware of the broader range of strengths available to them to deploy, they may make serious missteps with others. Specifically, they may deploy strengths that are inappropriate for the situation and individuals at hand. Consequences could include subpar job performance, damaging mistakes, and poor decision-making. As a result, the organization may fail to realize its vision or execute its strategies.

The good news is that, with the right training and tools, people can learn what strengths are truly available to them to deploy in high-stakes workplace situation, how to accurately assess a situation, and how to use their assessment to select the right strengths. Indeed, equipping managers and their teams with the knowledge and skills they need to hold themselves accountable for results can help an organization achieve measurable performance improvements, in such forms as increased employee engagement, efficiency, and effectiveness.

For example, executives at a large bank were concerned about several branches’ performance and local managers’ not holding themselves accountable. For example, managers were referring too many interpersonal conflicts to the bank’s Human Resources department. When the managers and their teams received accountability training, their interpersonal-skills ratings improved by 67 per cent, time spent dealing with conflict decreased by 25 per cent, and employee turnover shrank by 50 per cent.

Michael Patterson is speaking at HRMA’s 2015 Annual Conference + Tradeshow. His session — Accountability by Choice: The Commitment Required by HR Leaders — is on Tuesday, April 28th.

Michael Patterson, Ed.D., is a principal at PSP, a Carlsbad, California-based learning and development company. He is also an adjunct professor in the doctoral program at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and co-author of the highly acclaimed book Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. He can be reached via email at

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