Employees stand happily in front of an upwards arrow, representing positive accountability at work.
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Banning the blame game: Positive accountability in action

6 Jun 2024

A positive work culture and business results are not mutually exclusive and the best leaders excel at both, say these experts.

When you hear the phrase workplace accountability, you might assume that it is just a HR friendly way of saying that there is something you are being blamed for, that you have failed in your role or that the easiest way for you to avoid embarrassment could be to point the finger at someone else. 

A healthy working environment thrives when it can recognise the stark difference between blame and accountability, so knowing the signs of a counter-productive versus a supportive system can be critical to company success and employee welfare. 

For Paulette Ashlin, president of human capital consultancy company Ashlin Associates and Dr John Kello, professor emeritus of psychology at Davidson College, it is all about taking a positive reinforcement approach. 

Ashlin and Kello have co-authored a book, 5 Actions of Positive Accountability, and for them, the distinction between the positive and negative approach to accountability is clear. 

“Positive accountability is simply holding others accountable in a positive manner,” says Ashlin, who further explains that it is the process of enabling yourself and others to meet the high expectations of a job in a constructive way. 

To critique or not to critique

Accountability need not be an intimidating scenario, nor, as Kello remarks, should it be regarded as “soft”, whereby employers “dance around the need for performance”, trivialising the principles of self-reflection and ownership over your actions. 

He notes, some might think that the strong emphasis placed on the idea of positive reinforcement is a sign that companies favour “human relations over business results” but “human relations and business results are not at all mutually exclusive”, he explains, “and the best leaders excel at both”.

Often, organisations want to identify and erase the “markers of a dysfunctional workplace culture” that can lead to low morale, high-turnover and disengagement, but they simply do not have the necessary systematic approach needed to address it. “They don’t fully understand that accountability is a multi-step process,” he says.

Whether it is intentional or not, ignorance around positive accountability within the workforce can have damaging consequences, such as the inhibition of creativity and innovation, for the fear that any error or misalignment will result in harsh criticism or embarrassment. 

The lack of accountability can also cause companies to lose credibility with external contacts as no one seems prepared to step up and engage in matters that are outside of their remit, in case it might work against them down the line. 

For Ashlin, the “traditional command-and-control” method, used by managers to wield total authority over employees, is a particularly negative example of how a company can foster the blame-game environment. 

Alternatively, there will be those who ignore performance issues in the hope that problems will self-correct. Often, she states, companies will have no clear method and will find themselves “vacillating between the overly harsh and the overly soft approach” in an effort to establish order. 

ABCs of accountability

Ashlin and Kello are unified in their belief in he 5 As of accountability, that they say can empower employers to introduce a framework of positive accountability into the workforce. 

Kello explains, if you anticipate you can “set and communicate performance expectations”, making sure that roles are understood and embraced. Assistance can provide much needed support and “remove barriers to make it more likely that employees can meet those expectations”. Appraisal enables employers to “track performance against the goals that have been set”. 

The advise stage provides “both positive and corrective feedback” consistently and the final A, affect, brings into effect consequences “at the end of a review cycle, based on performance against the goals that were initially set”. 

According to Ashlin, the key to incorporating the five actions of accountability is doing so in a professional, self-aware and affirming manner, “based on the principles of behaviourism and positive psychology”. 

On the significance of collaboration, both Ashlin and Kello cite the need for a cohesive, mutually beneficial process that includes a high degree of partnering and support. 

For Ashlin, emotional intelligence and how this intersects with the tenets of behaviourism (the theory that human behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning), are pivotal to the creation of an “atmosphere of positive accountability”, with Kello further explaining that the process requires an understanding of “shared responsibility among employees at all levels”. 

Firmly rooted in behavioural science, with years of rigorous research at its centre, for Ashlin and Kello, the main assessment of positive accountability and the impact it can have on an open-minded, human-oriented workforce, is artfully succinct, in that “the ultimate value of the positive approach … is simply that it works”.

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Laura Varley
By Laura Varley

Laura Varley is a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic. She has a background in technology PR and journalism and is borderline obsessed with film and television, the theatre, Marvel and Mayo GAA. She is currently trying to learn how to knit.

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