There's a pervasive myth in the professional world that holding employees accountable for their work somehow prevents them from reaching their creative potential. This myth couldn't be further from the truth, but it's easy to see where it comes from -- a basic misunderstanding of what real accountability is.
True accountability isn't punitive. It is not something that comes to the fore only when someone makes a mistake. Rather, accountability means focusing on what can be done, rather than what's out of your control.
Most surprising of all: Dedication to accountability fosters creativity.
Accountability Is Not Atonement
Far too often, people think that holding others accountable is a way of blaming or even punishing them for a perceived mistake. Unfortunately, there's plenty of reason to perceive it that way: accountability is often only discussed in the wake of an incident that has negatively impacted the workplace, when managers or coworkers are seeking someone to blame.
It's no wonder, then, that so few people associate creativity with accountability. A culture of fear stifles risk-taking, the very life-blood of innovation. But positive accountability enhances the creative process by empowering employees to take ownership over circumstances.
Accountability Is Action
Accountability is a positive force in any professional setting, representing a person's ability to rise above difficult circumstances by focusing on the things that she can control while accepting the things she can't. It's the ability to say, "What can I personally do to change this outcome?" and then follow a concrete course of action to achieve it. In this way, accountability opens the door to creative and innovative solutions.
Consider the creative culture that thrived at Apple. It was only a decade ago that Steve Jobs looked at his team of developers and engineers and said, "I want you to create a device that will store and play all my music, give me access to the internet, and serve as my cell phone."
His team could have responded with all the reasons why that couldn't be done. But knowing that Jobs would rather they try and fail than come up with excuses for why they couldn't meet his goal, his team set out to achieve something spectacular. In other words, the team was given what may have seemed like an impossible project-- but each member felt individually accountable for its completion, and worked to do what was within their control to guarantee its success.
Accountability Is Necessary for Creativity
The opposite of accountability is not creativity; it is finger-pointing and blaming others. A shortage of creative thinking from your team is a sign that employees are not taking accountability for results. By offering excuses about things outside of their control, they hold themselves back from accessing new solutions and generating new ideas.
We interviewed 40 leaders whose entire hospital was struggling with improving patient satisfaction. We asked them, "What's getting in the way of improving patient satisfaction?" Twenty interviews in, we heard the same answer from each person: "Staffing!" On interview 21 we pushed a bit further by asking: "Let's say staffing is off the table. We've fixed it and have all the people we need. What else could you do to improve patient satisfaction?" The answer was, "I don't know. I just say 'staffing' when people ask that question."
When people avoid taking accountability for the solutions, we don't access creativity, we don't get engagement, people commiserate around all the reasons why we can't get the result, and all the energy that could be applied to achieving the outcomes we need is wasted in the blame game.
Engaging for Results
Does accountability impact engagement and creativity? Absolutely! If you notice that an employee on your team is holding back ideas and is too concerned with "drawing inside the lines," open a dialogue to uncover what might be holding the employee back from feeling empowered to speak up and act. Redirect the focus, encouraging people to take accountability for factors that are within their control. Those who rise to the challenge serve as an example for others that accountability and creativity go hand in hand. With consistent leadership aimed at fostering a culture of accountability, the possibilities for innovation, productivity, engagement, and creativity are endless.