Have you given much thought to the notion of behavioural accountability in your workplace?

One thing I discovered when I conducted my interviews with Employers of Choice for Road to Respect was a commonality with respect to an expectation of behavioural accountability. It starts with a proactive approach, which focuses on ensuring that everyone understands what is expected of them, not just with respect to their job duties but with respect to their personal behaviour and workplace conduct. The conversation about behavioural accountability, the notion of each individual being responsible for her/his workplace behaviour, and beyond that, responsible for acting in accordance with organizational values, starts in the hiring process.

I recently conducted an interview with Janine North, CEO of Northern Development Trust, the fifth interview for a series I am doing called Are We There Yet? Women, Position &  Power. Ms. North talked about the importance of leaders “extracting accountability.”

We often hear about the importance of holding employees accountable. That expression seems to imply  that something, or more commonly, someone  external to that employee, is responsible for ensuring that an employee lives up to her/his end of the employment contract. It expresses a cultural norm with respect to power and empowerment within an organization.

Take a moment to consider the difference between a leader who “holds others accountable” and one who “extracts accountability” from her/his direct reports. It implies a very different kind of power dynamic as well as a different kind of leadership style.

I asked Ms. North to share how she “extracts accountability,” particularly with respect to empowering employees to speak up about workplace disrespect and conflict.

What I learned is that one of the cultural norms Ms. North institutes wherever she works is what she referred to as “keeping short accounts.” Consistent with what I heard from other Employers of Choice I interviewed for Road to Respect, the conversation about personal accountability starts in the hiring process. “One of the things we talk about in the hiring interview is how we keep short accounts with each other: we don’t allow things to fester. When we have an issue with someone, we always raise the issue with that person privately. It’s about making sure to put the snakes on the table; you don’t let them crawl around in the grass and bite you. The idea is to bring daylight to every issue. We keep short accounts: we bring issues up respectfully and we celebrate how good that makes us feel.”

Ms. North told me that early in her career she heard that expression about putting the snakes on the table and “it really resonated with me.” Soon afterwards she was vacationing in Mexico and found a colourful snake, which has been on her desk ever since. It serves as a visual reminder both to her and her team. “It is a piece of humour that you can use to have an honest respectful workplace where people feel free to work through issues. It is a phrase that brings lots of coachable moments.”

As a result, everyone knows what is meant by the phrases “keep short accounts” and “put the snakes on the table.” They have become part of the corporate vernacular. “If anyone is griping we remind them to keep short accounts. It is ingrained in our culture – put the snakes on the table.”

Here’s what I heard when I asked Ms. North about her choice to bring the snake to work and keep it on her desk. “I instituted this because it is who I am. I want to work with people who are caring and upfront with each other and are accountable to each other.”

When people care about each other, when they are accountable to each other, fear diminishes as a behavioural motivator. There is a norm of behavioural accountability: a shared responsibility to “hold ourselves and other accountable.” The result is an empowered workplace, where employees feel a sense of personal responsibility and ownership;  a workplace where the obligation to speak up about issues, concerns, problems and business opportunities simply becomes “the way it is around here.”

I’ve worked with many leaders over the past 15 years. Very few spring out of bed in the morning eagerly anticipating a conversation where they have to “hold someone accountable.”

Make a choice to start a different conversation in your workplace – one that focuses on creating a culture of behavioural accountability where everyone feels a sense of personal responsibility for speaking up, resolving issues and creating a respectful, high performing culture.

I’m pretty sure you could find a snake at the dollar store to keep on your desk. I am quite confident that Ms. North won’t mind if you do.