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Bringing Accountability Back Into the Workplace

It takes more than the ability to turn out high-quality widgets to bring value to the workplace.

Just think about it. Work is much more than assembly-line production at any level, from a CEO’s attendance at an endless stream of meetings to the whir of a data-entry person’s processing. You bring value to the workplace when you do your job effectively and contribute to its character by being accountable.

Employees expect their bosses to be accountable but often forget that accountability has to be mutual. You know people who don’t accept responsibility for their errors, be they actions or ideas.

Such people act out self-defeating behaviors, reflecting negatively on their decision-making pattern. Jerry Harvey, in his new book on office politics, “How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife?” (Jossey-Bass, $24), writes that all decisions stem from “ethical, moral and possibly spiritual considerations. And the choice you make is yours alone.”

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Where does accountability flourish? The American military is pre-eminent for inculcating this value. Army Gen. George S. Patton, who served brilliantly, although not without flaw, during World War II, believed that everyone should be accountable for his own actions, according to Alan Axelrod in his “Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare” (Prentice Hall, $23). Axelrod summarizes: “When you make a mistake, give the people you work with , including those you supervise , a shot at divinity. Admit your error. own up. Then propose a course to correct the mistake. Never use your authority to mask mistakes. Once you admit an error, look to the future. … How will you keep this from happening again?”

People who value and practice accountability anchor the workplace. You can count on them at all times for accepting personal responsibility, even when decisions they make doom projects, their jobs or, if they’re entrepreneurs or company heads, their companies. In today’s team-based businesses, this quality can cause resentment.

Anna Bresnahan, marketing manager at Card Capture Services Inc. in Portland, Ore., which provides products and services for automated teller machines, puts departmental policies in place while managing the daily marketing functions for this $40 million, award-winning company. She was working 10- to 12-hour days when told to develop a brochure for that month’s statement to customers. The deadline? One and a half weeks. Because the company was a start-up, everyone was learning on a constant basis, sometimes through error.

“I gave the project to the marketing coordinator so that she could learn something more,” Bresnahan says. “It seemed easy, because we had the hard copy and graphics.”

Two days before the deadline, Bresnahan gave the brochure, completed, to the president, as she customarily did, for his review. She subsequently learned that: content needed to be sharpened; meeting the deadline was impossible; the cost of 7,000 undeliverable copies wouldn’t go away; and heads of IT, operations and the legal departments complained for not having been able to contribute to the effort.

“There was a process in my head, but not on paper,” Bresnahan explains. “I told the president that such projects should be shared with everyone in the marketing department and reside in a file accessible to everyone.”

This strategy paralleled ‘the president’s philosophy, that mistakes invite empowering solutions.

Paul Entin, owner of epr-Ideas That Click, which provides marketing and public relations services, both online and traditional, in Lambertville, N.J., recalls an incident when he directed public relations at another firm that may have cost him a few “friends,” but allowed him to maintain his principles while continuing his good relationship. The firm’s production team had developed a display for a retail client. Each of the happy customers showcased there had to give approval.

“The day it was to be shipped to the client, one customer refused to participate,” he reports. Bucking some internal pressure, Entin halted the shipment to recruit a new customer for the display.

Although the one-day delay didn’t upset the client, it provoked some negativity within the firm. Production workers were upset that Entin had kept them from meeting their deadline. However, the company president began consulting him when he needed an ethical sounding board.

Bringing value to the workplace begins with accountability. Taking personal responsibility helps more than one person learn.

Culp sponsors the annual WorkWise Award. For more information, visit (www.work-wise.com).

2000 Universal Press Syndicate

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