When we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes we let things slide—a missed deadline, talking over others in a meeting, overcommitting to a new initiative but under-delivering in the end. But avoiding responsibilities hurts overall organization performance, not just the goodwill of co-workers, according to a survey by AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association.

The survey probed the organizational impact of a widespread "pass-the-buck" culture. Executives, managers, and employees from more than 500 U.S. companies participated in the survey and were asked: In your opinion, what is the impact of avoiding responsibility at your organization? 

More than two-thirds (69 percent) of respondents say a lack of accountability damages overall performance, more than half (55 percent) feel it is resented by co-workers, and 44 percent report that is diminishes  a sense of engagement. 

“Employees understandably become resentful when they see co-workers shirking responsibility without accountability—in such a situation, organizational morale and, ultimately, performance cannot help suffering,” says Sandi Edwards, senior vice president for AMA Enterprise. 

According to Edwards, avoiding one’s responsibilities may be infectious. “A culture that tolerates ‘passing the buck’ alienates those employees who give everything to their job on a daily basis—these employees may rightfully feel they are being taken advantage of as they take on more and more responsibility to compensate for those who are not fully engaged.” 

Edwards also warns that such a situation “risks the creation of a vicious cycle in which the fully-engaged disengage, having lost the sense of shared responsibility critical to organizational success. A few shirkers can snowball until the dominant culture becomes one of risk- and responsibility-aversion.” 

While avoiding responsibility is nothing new, the findings hint that the challenge may be getting worse, observed Edwards. And authors of Culture Without Accountability, Julie Miller and Brian Bedford agree. 

Instilling an accountability culture 

Culture Without Accountability explains what can happen when businesses, teams, families, and individuals shirk accountability. But how can you make accountability stick? Miller and Bedford offer a few ideas for installing an accountability-based culture. 

First, they suggest organizations conduct an accountability post-mortem. “Call your team together for an open discussion of the company’s core values and required behaviors and where you’ve dropped the ball,” Miller advises. 

“Explain that no one will get in trouble for acknowledging their own shortcomings or even pointing out those of others. Ask people to share the negative effects they believe these behaviors had on the business and explain that those negatives will only get worse with time,” adds Miller. Bedford suggests that the best place to start is by taking responsibility for your own transgressions. 

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Next, leaders can’t simply decree an accountability mandate and then expect everyone to fall in line; they need to implement a training and development plan to help employees understand why accountability is important and what accountable behavior looks like. 

Bedford explains: “In these sessions you should also establish how their accountability mindset and behaviors will affect their pay and progression in the organization. Teach employees how to provide feedback to one another, since this is essential to developing a culture of accountability. 

“For leaders, you’ll need specialized training and development programs that explain what accountability looks like for them and what they can do to be effective accountability role models. We’ve seen these kinds of programs work many times before. Through our consulting practice, we work with companies from around the world to tailor training plans specific to their needs—we don’t feel a standardized approach is as effective.” 

Finally, the Bedford and Miller suggest that organizations implement the use of behavior statements that clarify expectations about accountability. Statements will answer the fundamental question of what, precisely, you’re trying to fix, implement, or eliminate. For example, you might establish accountability behavior statements, such as:

  • Always do what you say you’ll do.
  • Always tell the truth.
  • Bring issues up as you discover them. 

Then, make those even more clear through “dos and don’ts,” such as:  

  • DO be open, honest, and truthful.
  • DON’T make excuses. 

“Once you’ve established accountability behavior statements and provided “dos and don’ts,” you can revisit them during performance reviews,” notes Miller. “They’ll help drive discussions with employees on how they are doing when it comes to meeting your company’s accountability standards,” she adds. 

Moving forward 

To be sure, we’re all guilty of overlooking the little transgressions. The problem is that those little transgressions can easily snowball into big problems. 

“When left unattended, the negative results that come from a lack of accountability will spread,” reminds Bedford. “Will your organization be able to survive that kind of plague? Maybe? Certainly, not all companies meet the fate of the Enrons and Lehman Brothers of the world. But in the end, what will your company look like? Will it be a place where great people want to work? Will it be able to provide great services or products to customers?” 

Bottom line: When you commit to making accountability stick, you improve your chances of becoming a great leader in a great company.