29 Aug 2016 19:16 IST

The perks of 360-degree accountability

Measuring and monitoring managers is essential to employee engagement

An interesting discussion ensued one day, after I addressed the executive MBA students of a premier B-School in Bangalore. It was on the subject of creating an ‘accountable’ organisation. I asked experienced leaders attending the programme if a culture of accountability is critical to the success of a business. Wvery one of them agreed without blinking an eye. But all of them also agreed that today, organisations score around five or six on a scale of 1 to 10 scale, when it comes to this topic.

We moved on to discuss the hindrances that were coming in the way of taking it to a higher mark. I asked them if these senior managers noticed any directional pattern in accountability. Post some generalisations, participants uniformly agreed that in every organisation, it is usually top down — bosses hold their direct reports accountable for meeting commitments, promises, goals and results.

I then asked them if they had witnessed anywhere, a widespread practice of people holding their peers accountable, or juniors holding their bosses accountable. Understandably, they hadn’t.

Accountable leader

Execution suffers when accountability is not clear. However, motivation and engagement suffer more when leaders do not hold themselves accountable for their promises and commitments they made to people working with them.

A sense of false urgency, running from meetings to meetings, reviews to reviews and such other “busy idleness”, to borrow a term from Dr Sumantra Ghoshal, keeps leaders busy from remembering and delivering on their promises.

When juniors muster the courage to remind their bosses of their commitments, it is more often resented than thanked. It is as though only bosses have the right to remind and hold their juniors accountable. It is no different when it comes to our peers. This is not appreciated and is often abhorred.

The least leaders can do is keep track of their commitments and deliver. If they cannot deliver a promise for whatever reason, the next best thing to do would be to update and apologise to the juniors and reaffirm a new timeline for delivering. This enhances the leader’s credibility, although doing so frequently will dent the boss’ reputation.

Accountability across hierarchies

In highly accountable organisations, hierarchy has nothing to do with accountability. It is a culture where anyone who has received a commitment, can flag off when it is conveniently forgotten.

Organisations have a role to play in ensuring that accountability is not unidirectional (top to bottom) but is 360 degrees. It is useful to design and implement a simple application on the company’s intranet, as we did in a global organisation I worked for.

As soon as one-on-one or skip level meeting with people is over, the employee is encouraged to post the main discussion points, including commitments made by the manager during such meetings. Once the employee enters this information, the app triggers a message and link to the manager and HR.

The manager concerned can then view the posting by the employee, validate it and even correct a perception on promise if required. HR business partners can then keep a tab on the commitments and give a gentle nudge every now and then so managers do not forget it.

Why this helps

Employee morale and engagement is proportional to bosses keeping their commitments. The whole concept of psychological contract has a lot to do with commitment management.

Attritions increase when these psychological contracts are violated with impunity. And when there is no tracking mechanism, violations, whether intentional or otherwise, tend to increase.

Measuring and monitoring managers both, through a system and through other reviews, is essential to employee engagement. Even organisations with best of intentions tend to treat this as low priority, given the pressure-cooker environment in which businesses conduct their affairs today.

However, succeeding in such an environment precisely requires heightened attention to all-round accountability, not just accountability for performance commitments top down.