To move things forward, create a culture of accountability

To move things forward, create a culture of accountability

To move things forward, create a culture of accountability

And to create a culture of accountability, consider seven practices, not least, sleeping on things.

Jonathan Yudelowitz

When Volkswagen’s diesel scandal broke a few years ago, Olaf Lies, a VW board member, stated publicly that the people who allowed it to happen “must be held personally accountable.” Notice his use of the word, accountable. VW’s CEO Martin Winterkorn initially resisted calls to step down but, because the irregularities had happened on his watch, he resigned as CEO in September 2015.

Accountability has always been implicit in British politics. When something goes wrong on your watch in British politics, you resign whether it’s your fault or not.

Accountability rises above the normal business concepts because it is linked closely to honour. But let’s understand why being accountable is so valuable – because it’s not only about doing the honourable thing.

When British politicians hold themselves accountable it prevents energy from being invested in defensive behaviour or becoming diverted to a salacious blame game. Valuable time and energy are not wasted; instead, normal business can carry on.

When Martin Winterkorn stepped down, did it help VW move forward? Many factors played a role in Dieselgate, not least VW’s solid reputation and strong brand, but his resignation undoubtedly prevented a logjam and helped clear the way for VW to deal with their crisis and move forward. A subsequent poll conducted by Bild magazine suggested that the majority of Germans continued to “have great faith in Volkswagen” and a poll from the consultancy Prophet indicated that VW is still regarded as “a builder of excellent cars.”

Accountability has to be one of the most fundamental concepts for leadership.

How do you create a culture of accountability? How does it become part of ‘the way we do things around here’? Here are seven practices we find valuable at YSA.

1. Emotional safety

If you’ve delegated a project to someone, not only do they need to clear about their mandate and their boundaries. To work with accountability requires something less definable: they need to feel comfortable using their own conscience as their guide.

That means they must believe they have the emotional and cognitive space to apply their discretion and their nous to come up with solutions they believe in. And when they have, they must believe you will take their efforts seriously.

When it’s time for them to voice their opinion, they must be able to speak their truth without fear or favour. They should feel they can put on the table any opinion they believe in. Especially when it is a No. They cannot do that if they’re worried that they will be ostracised or punished for their view.


When people are made to feel insecure – through interference or even outright threats – their thoughts and imagination become defensive. They no longer apply themselves with focused intention. Instead, their valuable resources – including their allocated time – become scattered and sporadic.

They most certainly won’t speak up if some form of bribery or blackmail is going on. As is the case in so many corporate processes, unfortunately.

By bribery I mean rewarding or promoting people for something other than their performance. Something extraneous to the business. It makes the purpose of work confusing. If we are not here to do a job and do it well, then what? The practice is of no benefit to anyone.

By blackmail I mean holding something against someone long after the event has taken place. Again, possibly extraneous to the business. This is why BEE is failing in South Africa. Blackmail can also mean getting someone to act against their conscience, for instance with the threat of dismissal: You dare not speak like that in front of the chairman because…

You’ll undoubtedly have experienced these practices for yourself. Implicitly you know that creating a culture of emotional safety is key to creating accountability.

2. The responsibilities of speaking your truth

Having the freedom to express what you truly believe does not mean you can simply say whatever you want, however you want to. Freedom must be exercised with responsibility.

How do you raise an issue? When do you raise it? How do you make an impact and wake people up to a harsh reality without offending everyone?

How do you frame what you have to say? What you may regard as self-evident could be anything but to your audience. For instance, if you need to suggest to your colleagues that their latest initiative has become a loss-maker, you probably shouldn’t broach the subject at a committee meeting. They will instinctively become defensive, no matter how broad their shoulders.

In speaking your truth, the social graces are essential. Manners matter, people’s feelings must be respected, discretion needs to be applied.

3. The Art of Conversation

The seven topics in this blog are like Venn diagrams – they overlap each other. This one overlaps with the social graces above and they both overlap with the topics below.

Conversation is implicit in all accountability. We are social beings. We share ideas. We reason together. When we do so in a room, as opposed to in a string of emails, our conversation becomes efficient. There is nuance and detail. There is instantaneous feedback. There is the opportunity to take difficult decisions. And there is also space for ambiguity and uncertainty…

Unfortunately, to a large degree we have lost the Art of Conversation. We need to bring it back.

If you return to one of my previous blogs – THE CINEMA AND THE EDITING SUITE – a conversation is the equivalent of working in the editing suite. This is where you create solutions to problems together. The cinema, on the other hand, is where a performance happens. It’s where your audience – quite possibly your own colleagues – will sit on the receiving end of a pre-determined show – without the ability to contribute.

Email can easily become the equivalent of the cinema: a platform from which you deliver a performance you have rehearsed many times in your head. Never fall into the trap of addressing important or sensitive issues using the one-sidedness of email. It lacks the necessary interchange. It lacks nuance and the opportunity to modulate what you’re saying. Email can be a cowardly medium, quickly leading to a dysfunctional and destructive interchange, particularly when things have become dire.

Email is the epitome of the lost Art of Conversation. It’s not the way to benefit from everyone’s input, to get their buy-in even if they are against the proposal, and then to move things forward.

4. Courageous Conversations

Let’s imagine for a moment that your company is not hitting its targets. You and your colleagues have been battling for months, hoping that you will somehow meet your forecasts, but now you realise there is no quick fix. For things to move forward, you first need to take a step back.

Now your real challenge is to meet with an impatient and demanding CEO and say, “We need time and space. Before we go any further, we need to fix the system.”

Your conversation doesn’t require superior cognitive intelligence. It requires courage. It requires honour. It requires you to speak your truth and say, “If I am to be accountable, this is what I need to do.”

5. The confidence to listen

If you are to develop the Art of Conversation in your organisation, two things are required of you.

Firstly, the confidence to listen. And, secondly, the opportunity to reflect on what is said.

Neither are readily found in a high-demand, results-driven business world. But, as a leader, if you are to consult in an effective way with the people who are ‘doing the doing’, surprising value will come through listening to what they have to say.

That sounds easy enough – have a conversation with them. But will you have the courage to stay listening to what someone has to say? To truly listen, you cannot be in control. You need the patience to let reality emerge in all its complexity. You need to trust that you will know what to do – but only later. To solve problems – especially the big, knotty problems – sometimes all you need to do is pay attention. Don’t try to have the answers.

But that requires courage when the stakes are high.

6. The time to reflect

Equally important, when answers are needed yesterday, a paradox should be at work. You must create the time and space to do nothing. When people – including you – most feel on the spot that’s when you most need the opportunity NOT to perform.

Reflecting allows you to gather yourselves.

Instead of putting yourselves under pressure to act – “Don’t just stand there, do something” – do the opposite. “Don’t do something, just stand there.”

Surgeons put that wisdom to good use. So does Warren Buffett.

  • Get in touch with your accountability.
  • Do you know where you stand?
  • Have you forgotten your own judgement about what’s right?
  • Is some ideology telling you what to think?
  • Are you too attached to an outcome? Is it preventing you from thinking straight?
  • Are you being driven by what the boss wants to see, by what the market wants the boss to deliver?

Pause. Take a breath.

Reflection gives your brain the chance to re-order and re-organise itself. Do not underestimate the value of apparently doing nothing.

Reflection happens at the oddest moments. When you’re taking a nature break. When you’re in your car, driving home. And when you’re asleep. As a French saying has it, “The night provides the best advice.”

Only when you are in touch with your honour can you speak your truth.

8. Calculated risk-taking

When you address an issue with a team or a colleague, will you feel safe doing so? Perhaps more crucially, will you feel too safe? If you feel too safe, you’re probably not taking enough risk. You’re not telling enough of your truth.

You need to wake the system up. To come full circle, what are you going to say and how are you going to say it?

To move things forward in your business, you need to break the habits of denial and delusion. While it is necessary for every team (and every family, by the way) to create a sense of comfort in order to function efficiently, periodically it is also necessary – and healthy – to burst their bubble.

To move things forward, you must disturb the sense of complacency that has settled on their day-to-day functioning. If your people are to be accountable, they need to wake up and clear the fog that has settled. They need to reassess their situation, themselves, and their roles.

Of course, as a leader, the very same applies to you.