Eight Steps to Creating an Accountable Culture

Accountability is in, and not a moment too soon. Certain sectors of the business world had gotten so unaccountable that the government stepped in to force the issue with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. But can accountability be legislated? Sure, you may follow the rules to avoid going to prison, but true accountability comes from within, not from above. You can't impose accountability on others through fear, but you can foster an accountable corporate culture. The best way to do so is via a grass-roots effort that begins with a single leader.

To instill accountability in your people you must practice it yourself. Start holding yourself accountable for your goals and business practices and you set the standard for others to follow your lead.

At its heart, accountability means doing what you say you're going to do. According to our research, people resist accountability because of three primary fears: fear of blame, fear of failure, and fear of success.

These may not sound like fears that typically plague leaders, but everyone is susceptible to them. Here is a how-to guide for establishing accountability.

1. Stop being a victim. When things happen to you and you don't seem to have a choice in the matter, you are a victim. But the unsettling truth is people usually choose to be victims. When faced with a situation, you ignore, deny, blame, rationalize, resist, and ultimately hide. You must come to the realization that regardless of what has happened in the past, you can choose what to do next. Breaking free of the victim mindset allows you to move into action.

2. Take charge of your life. Now that you've stopped being a victim, you must clarify what real success looks like to you. How could you possibly move toward a goal until you have identified what that goal is? Once you have defined and refined your picture of success, put together a list of accountable actions that will take you there. But beware of one of the surprising pitfalls of accountability: perfectionism. That's right. If you wait until you have perfected something, you will never move on.

3. Recognize your current reality. Until you know what you are dealing with, you can't do anything differently. Sometimes, it just looks really big. When you shine the light on it, it turns out it wasn't as big as you feared. So, pull out your flashlight and take an objective and unbiased look at where you really are. Realize that your best thinking brought you to this point—if you had known how to do any of this better, you would have done it better. You might consider hiring a good coach. He or she can provide an outsider's look at your situation and guide you to achieve your goals.

4. Own your part. In order to change the reality you live in, it needs to be your reality. Since you are the creator of the original situation, you can create a different one. And consider this: When you own something, you are much more likely to respect it. When you are working on a project with other people, assume 100 percent of the ownership in your own mind. Don't be a power monger, or a martyr who takes the blame, or a sidestepper who takes none of the blame. Find a balance of responsibilities.

5. Give the gift of forgiveness. Once you have recognized the reality of what you are dealing with and owned the part you have played to get there, forgiveness is your way out. It offers you an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Forgiveness is not a substitute for action; it is a way to come to the action in a more creative, caring way.

6. Practice the art of self-examination. This is the turning point. From here, you can start creating your new life. It's time to get rid of your automatic pilot syndrome—to stop thinking, doing, and feeling the same things over, and over—and start making deliberate, healthful choices. You may feel that you have no control over your circumstances, and it's certainly true that you can't control other people. But what you can control is how you respond and react. When you admit your role in any dysfunctional situation, you set the stage to take productive action next time.

7. Be a master learner. Seize the opportunity and let yourself be transformed. Think differently. If what you did in a previous situation didn't work out, the process of learning guarantees you will proceed differently next time. Be aware, however, of the traps that get in the way of learning: Perhaps you feel attached to the old way, or you tried it before and failed, or you feel that you have to have absolute proof that it will work before you try it. Be completely open to learning. Leave your ego at the door. Too often, highly successful business leaders are so attached to their old techniques—the ones that brought them accolades and wealth—that they simply aren't willing to try something new. But to be a master learner, you must approach new situations with fresh eyes.

8. Take action. There is a direct relationship between your career as a whole and all the actions you take every hour of every workday. To like your work life—the sum of your actions—you have to like each action individually. Take small, manageable actions consistent with your desired outcome. The steps should be large enough to take you beyond your comfort zone but not so large that they paralyze you. Keep moving toward your goal. Reach out for help when you need it. Finally, have a recovery plan. If there's one certainty in business and in life, it's that things will not go according to plan. As long as you recommit yourself to your goal, you will be able to recover from your mistakes.

Mark Samuel is the president and founder of IMPAQ, a worldwide consulting firm, and Sophie Chiche is the chief operating officer of IMPAQ. They are authors of, The Power of Personal Accountability: Achieve What Matters to You (Xephor Press). To contact them, visit www.impaqcorp.com or call (800) 332-2251.