Accountability is important to any enterprise. If no-one is held responsible, then there’s no way of judging success and failure. But it means different things to different people, and if misused can lead to chaos and stress. So how can you get accountability right?

Understand Why Accountability Matters

To do anything right, you first need to be aware of why you are doing it.

Accountability matters because without it no-one can be held responsible for what they do. It’s a way of recognizing and encouraging successes, and of identifying and tackling failures. It’s important that there’s accountability within the business, but also that the business is held accountable. And of course it is important that you act upon it.

Limiting the Negative

Accountability easily becomes associated with the negative. After all, people avoid being held accountable when things have gone wrong. But one of the major causes of this imbalance toward the negative is also a reason why it is dangerous.

Negativity bias is a psychological phenomenon that leads to negative events having a larger impact on humans than the positive. Without a concerted effort to look on the bright side of events, the darker ones will become our center of emotional gravity. While it’s a particular problem for depressives, it’s also a factor in the psychology of perfectly healthy people.

In accountability, negativity bias means that we are more likely to pay attention to and express the things that others have done wrong, and that on hearing our feedback the negative parts will affect them disproportionately and stick longer in the memory.

It is important not to ignore when things go wrong. But to prevent negativity bias taking over, it’s also important to make an effort to express positives at the same time, and to look at the opportunity for improvement rather than focusing solely on negative impacts.

Limiting Who Holds You Accountable

Another delicate balance comes in judging whose views to listen to in holding yourself, your employees or your company accountable. Judging how to respond to shifting public opinion is always difficult for a company. You need to be accountable to your customers and shareholders, but they won’t always know what’s in the best interests of the company.

Here the key is to consider where those people are coming from – not just their self-interest, but their knowledge base. Shareholders may understand market fluctuations but not the desires of your customers. The board member who is well equipped to judge financial performance may not be knowledgeable in the psychology of leadership, however strongly he expresses opinions on the subject.

Make sure that you are held most accountable by the best informed people, not the ones whom shout the loudest.

Asking Why

Acting on results is a vital part of accountability, but make sure to set limits around your responses. Whether you’re seeking to fix a problem or to replicate a success, don’t act until you’ve understood why you got the results you did. Otherwise you could easily end up fixing the wrong problem, or replicating something that didn’t bring success.

One of the simplest tools in the lean manufacturing toolbox can usefully be applied here – the five whys. Ask why you got the results you did. Then ask why again, this time about the answer to the first question. Keep asking why until you get to the root cause and know what really helped or hindered you.

Accountability is not about kneejerk reactions. It is about recognizing successes and failures and responding appropriately. Setting limits on that – around negativity, who you listen to and how you act – is as vital as being held accountable in the first place.

 

Originally appeared on Fast Company http://www.fastcompany.com/3052480/know-it-all/four-ways-youre-getting-accountability-wrong