August 20, 2012
DISCLAIMER: I am in no way responsible for the content of this column. Any errors, overstatements or outright fabrications are entirely the fault of editors, saboteurs or readers.
Now then, let's talk about accountability.
In the past decade, the concept of taking responsibility for mistakes made at work has become a bit foreign. (Lookin' at you, Enron, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, every politician everywhere, guy who stole my sandwich from the break-room fridge …)
This aversion to accountability has trickled down from the heads of huge corporations to the bosses and managers of small businesses and to all workers in between. A recent study by Avatar HR Solutions Inc. found that 49 percent of workers believe their company encourages employees to openly admit their mistakes.
We teach our kids to fess up when they've done something wrong, in part so we can trust them. So it makes sense that the lack of accountability in the workplace has led to a breakdown in trust. In June, an Interaction Associates survey found 27 percent of employees have a high level of trust in management.
Diane Swanson, chairwoman of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University, said accountability began to slide in the late 1990s with "a general movement of deregulation."
"We've had a decade of not only deregulation but an ideology that supports deregulation," she said. "When you have deregulation, society is putting more pressure on self-accountability in the private sector. To me, it's inevitable that there will be slippage."
Lauren Bloom, a business ethics specialist, said: "Unfortunately, at the same time deregulation was going on, Wall Street developed very unrealistic expectations for profits. It was kind of a perfect storm of growing expectation and at the same time less accountability."
So here we are, and if you think this an issue not to be taken seriously — by everyone from workers to middle managers to CEOs — you're wrong. A lack of trust poisons a workplace, and any boss with a lick of sense should want employees to feel comfortable taking responsibility for mistakes.
Bloom and Swanson agree that, for a workforce to develop a strong sense of accountability, it has to come from the top.
"With accountability I really see a dilemma in that if it doesn't come from the top, it's really tough in an organization to be accountable for any situations that run counter to what the top managers want to hear," Swanson said. "If someone wants to be accountable on the lower level, they have to know it will be welcome on the higher level."
This can involve anything from adopting an anonymous whistleblowing hot line to putting an ombudsman in place. Leaders need to speak openly about the importance of accountability and, above all else, hold themselves accountable when they screw up.
"The really good news is there's a lot you can do and it doesn't cost money, and it feels good," Bloom said. "It starts by saying, 'We're going to make ethics important.' And then asking the right questions: When did you last train on ethics? What is your culture like? If someone makes a mistake, are you going to crucify them? If that's the case, then nobody is going admit mistakes."
It's key to have ethics rules that everyone knows and demonstrate that nobody is above them. Mixing in a little humility helps.
The cocky banking chumps who got us into our financial mess clearly thought they were infallible. That kind of self-aggrandizement should not be encouraged. People need to recognize that mistakes are a part of the human condition, and that's OK.
The good news is there are signs that the pendulum of accountability might swing back toward reason.
"There is a small movement, and it's coming out of firms that want to brand themselves as socially responsible," Swanson said. "There are firms that want to identify with being accountable to various stakeholders, they want to be accountable for their decisions, to show that they are striving for ethics."
Some — though not most — business schools are incorporating ethics courses into their programs. And groups such as the Corporate Responsibility Officer Association are trying to draw more businesses into the ranks of professional and social accountability.
"This notion that the sole purpose of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders is the root of so many of our problems," Bloom said. "Unless several somebodies take an active turn to change that, it is going to become untenable."
What's on the line is public trust, worker dedication and the ability of companies to function smoothly. It may sound like I'm over dramatizing this, but I believe our willingness and ability to fess up to mistakes is crucial.
And it has to start with each person giving a damn about doing what's right.
I'm reminded of a pointed quote from Dr. Seuss' story, "The Lorax":
"UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
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