Creating a culture of accountability

Managers need to lead employees, not baby them

The FABRICATOR July 2013
July 12, 2013
By: Steven Shaffer

When management games subside, managers and employees no longer have to fear accountability. A shared understanding of accountability then can be accepted and embraced into the culture.

Creating a culture of accountability -

When managers get to a point where they allow employees to do their jobs—and solve their own problems—a culture of accountability can start to grow.

When I was working with a fabrication company, I asked a group of managers, salespeople, and plant employees for their definition of “accountability.”

“Being responsible,” some said.

“Doing what you say you’re going to do,” others added.

But the more we talked, the more the group became open and honest about what they thought accountability really means. And the definitions changed drastically.

The responses became more negative, harmful, and helpless. They included:

“What is done to me.”

“Being a target to be whacked or blamed.”

“Big Brother is watching.”



“Something that happens after you screw up.”

“Stomach turns/nervousness.”

“Unrealistic expectations.”

“Being confused, in the dark, uninformed.”

“Passing the buck.”

“Being resentful.”

“Being discouraged.”

“Being mentally abused.”

These are not unusual remarks from employees who work in cultures that have poor organizational health. In other words, this is par at businesses where blame and excuses for why things don’t get done permeate the culture.

The main reason people fear accountability is that the meaning is often misinterpreted (as above) and results in games being played. Games, as described in Dr. Eric Berne’s book The Games People Play, are what we learn to do in the unconscious. They are repeated behaviors that lead to negative outcomes.

Learning About the Game

There are three roles in any game:

  1. Victim. This person believes he can’t get things done and always blames somebody else. This helpless, “poor me” attitude is often an excuse to do less than his share and avoid taking a stand.
  2. Persecutor. This person sees himself as the victim’s rival. He uses threats to get things done. He is critical without understanding others and frequently finds fault. His biggest fear is loss of control.
  3. Rescuer. This person believes the victim is incapable of doing something alone. He is always solving everyone else’s problems. Keeping people as victims bolsters self-esteem and self-worth. The biggest fear is loss of purpose if he’s not helping someone.

Games in the workplace have a significant negative impact when they take away from productivity. Energy diverted to game-playing is not available to get tasks done.

The cost is immeasurable in terms of human distress, loss of productivity, and damage to the bottom line.

Let’s look at some real-life examples of games played in companies.

The Victim. A very talented salesperson who sold granite took on everything that came to him. He agreed with all criticisms and shouldered all demands without accepting any help from the manager.

In the middle of projects, he would collapse and not follow up on service issues or voice mails. He failed to meet deadlines.

Feeling overwhelmed, he told the manager, “See what you made me do!” He did not recognize or acknowledge that the manager offered help, but he would not accept it—or take responsibility for his situation.

The Persecutor. A manager of a structural steel company was always looking to find fault with his employees. He attacked small errors the employees made and ignored their good, hard work. The manager used intimidation to get things done and fueled the employees’ belief that they were not good enough.

The Rescuer. A business owner of a granite fabrication company complained that he never had enough time to do his own work. While reviewing spreadsheets with his controller, he would fix areas in the spreadsheets instead of pointing out the issues to the controller and letting him address them. When an employee came to him with questions or problems, he fixed them himself. It was no surprise that he didn’t have enough time to do his own work.

It Starts at the Top

The games start at the top with the leadership team and trickle down throughout the company.

Managers fall into the same categories mentioned previously—victim, persecutor, and rescuer. But there’s a fourth category, leader, which all managers should aspire to.

Leaders create followers by coaching, challenging, and praising their direct reports. The goal is to enable them to own their circumstance, empowering them to make choices that help them to achieve their goals or establish their own sense of accountability. Leaders get the most out of their employees.

Key to cultural change is eliminating the games that managers and their employees tend to play. A healthy and accountable culture results when more energy flows toward the purpose than toward managing relationships.

Changing Culture

A manufacturing company that I once worked with had more than 70 employees. The owners spent each and every day rescuing their employees by solving their problems and treating them like victims.

Unknowingly, the owners were teaching their employees that they were not capable of doing their jobs, and because all the owners did was solve their employees’ problems, they did not have enough time to do their own jobs.

To create an accountable culture, the owners and managers had to stop solving employee problems, especially when the employee already knew the answer. When I asked company owners and managers how often they thought employees knew the answers to their questions, they typically responded 70 to 75 percent of the time.

This brings us to the four cornerstones of leadership management:

  1. Ask employees how to solve a problem; don’t tell them how.
  2. Never tell employees how to do something if you can show them how.
  3. Never show employees how to do something if they can show you.
  4. Teach and empower employees to bring solutions with their problems.

These four cornerstones of leadership eliminate drama, excuses, and blame and puts the ownership of the problem where it firmly belongs.

The Oz Principle, a book detailing how accountability is important for individual and organizational improvement, contains a good question all managers should ask: “What else can you do to rise above your circumstances to achieve the goal?” Not, “What can I, the manager, do?” This ensures that the ownership of solving the problem stays where it should, with the employees.

As simple as these concepts seem, they are tough to integrate into a company, both at the leadership and employee level. First, it’s often hard for people to recognize and own their role.

Second, it takes a lot of effort and discipline to keep coaching, challenging, and empowering people. Sometimes it may seem easier for the manager to solve a problem himself, but in the long run that’s the wrong path because things will never change.

Stand up for Accountability

One way to create accountability is to initiate a daily, stand-up meeting.

For instance, at a technology contracting company I worked with, managers were asked to share a story from the previous day that illustrated use of one of the four cornerstones of leadership. Each story took only 30-45 seconds, so it wasn’t a big time commitment.

At first the managers had a tough time coming up with an example. However, because it was required, they started to focus on the leadership cornerstones as part of their jobs, and daily peer pressure developed to come prepared with a story. When the managers stopped telling and started asking questions, the daily drama of excuses and blame diminished.

When games subside, managers and employees no longer have to think of accountability as something to fear. A shared understanding of accountability can be accepted and embraced into the culture.

Steven Shaffer

Shaffer Consulting Group
Phone: 216-990-3012

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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