Developing Human Capital: The Ultimate Leadership Challenge Part 2: Creating a Culture of Accountability

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “accountability” as “subject to having to report, explain or justify; being answerable, responsible.” Notice how the definition begins with the words “subject to,” implying negativity in the matter. Accountability is often viewed as a consequence for poor performance or poor behaviour when it should be celebrated and should be woven into the DNA of an organizations culture so that it’s as natural as breathing. Consider the following new definition of accountability: rising above one’s circumstances to demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving goals and exceeding expectations

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges in managing a veterinary practice is to foster a culture that not only incorporates accountability but also celebrates it.  The ugly truth is that many times the lack of accountability is the leaders fault as much as it is our employees. We have not created an environment where accountability is a core competency skill, regardless of position within the practice.

Several years ago I had to do a performance evaluation on an employee (a technician) whom I had just met. I had just started as the practice administrator so I felt completely unprepared. I looked at her employee file to read over her previous evaluations. At that time she had been with the practice for seven years. All seven evaluations read exactly the same. Her strengths were the same and areas of opportunity were the same year after year. It was like reading the same evaluation seven times. I became bored reading them so I knew she had to be bored with the whole process herself. It was amazing to me that the practice had used the same form for nearly ten years.  When we sat down to talk I asked her what her expectations were of her performance evaluation. She said she didn’t have any except her annual raise, as this was the case every year. There was no accountability and no growth. Honestly, it was a light bulb moment for me. At that moment I knew it was time for a change. A change was needed not just in the evaluation system but in our philosophy, our investment in our human capital, and our culture.

In order to create a culture of accountability we have to change the way we evaluate our team members. Performance evaluations should be broken into three categories that I like to call performance factors: demonstrated ethics, performance within the job description and ability to work within a team environment. All three of these performance factors are equal in weight in accountability when evaluating one’s overall performance in your practice. This needs to be an all or nothing proposition in your practice. Failure in one of these performance factors creates an imbalance in the value potential of the employee and ultimately the team.

Demonstrated Ethics:

When considering ethics (work ethic), it is more than just getting to work on time. Although this is hugely important, it’s only part of the ethics story. What we are looking for is behaviour that demonstrates the virtues of ethics. By including these virtues in the overall performance evaluation, you are setting the expectation for appropriate behaviour in the practice.

Honesty Is this employee honest in his or her dealings with you, other staff members and clients? Does integrity seem to be an important and intrinsic value for your employee(s)?
Independence Does your employee accept his or her responsibility in their role within the practice?
Attitude Does your employee(s) show up to work with the right attitude every day?
Justice Does your employee(s) have a sense of right and wrong and demonstrate respectfulness of others?

These virtues of ethics are related to one’s character. In creating a culture of accountability it is helpful to have a staff of individuals who hold themselves accountable on a fundamental level.

Performance within the job description:

Let’s be clear on this, just showing up for work day after day does not constitute a good performance. We often mistake loyalty for performance and then end with enough dead weight in the practice to sink the Titanic. Years ago I had a technician ask for a raise. I asked him what have you done to earn one? He said, “Well, I show up every day and never call in sick”. This is a Demonstrated Ethics factor not a Performance factor. The point here is that your employee(s) needs to take responsibility for their own professional development. If you have an employee that is performing at the exact same level they were three years ago, why would it be appropriate to continue to give raises? When you evaluate performance within their job description be clear that merit increases are based on their initiative to improve their skills using any and all resources available to them. What are we doing? We are holding them accountable. Our job as managers and owners is to be sure we provide opportunities throughout the year for staff to sharpen their skills whether it is technical skills or client service skills. Always remember that merit increases should be earned.

Ability to work within a team environment:

In last month’s article we talked about the importance of collaborative capacity, the practice’s ability to work together as a team. Veterinary medicine is a team activity and any one person’s inability to work in a team setting is threat to the practice culture and overall effectiveness. When evaluating an employee’s contribution to the team, consider the following questions:

  • Does your employee(s) demonstrate behaviour that breaks down the team, such as gossip, selfishness, lack of respect, lack of common courtesy, etc…?
  • Is your employee(s) willing to teach what they know or willing to learn from others? Shared knowledge within the team not only makes the team stronger but also smarter. 
  • Is your employee(s) willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the whole team? 

Up to this point, this article might feel more like a “how to” in performance evaluations rather than creating a culture of accountability but I assure you they are distinctly related. Earlier I mentioned that all three performance factors (demonstrated ethics, performance within the job description and ability to work in a team environment) should be equal in weight and an all or nothing proposition in the practice. This means if an employee is struggling in one area then we need to concentrate their continuing education in that particular area and help them. If there is no improvement after coaching and training, then ultimately that employee(s) needs to be let go. If you are to have a successful and healthy culture of accountability then there can be no exceptions. If you have an employee that is great at their job performance but constantly demonstrates behaviour that breaks down the team, they must go. If an employee shows up every day with a great attitude and on time but cannot perform at the level they need to be in their job, they must go.

The culture you will create is one of accountability through ownership. Your team will feel responsible for their behaviour as well as their work. An added benefit is that your team will begin to hold each other accountable because each knows the importance and significance of their role as individuals and as members of a team. Ultimately, leaders build a culture of accountability by making sure employees know exactly what is expected of them and then follow up to ensure that employees perform according to those expectations.

See news feed for Part 3: Creating Leaders Among Followers!