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Our concept of organizational culture as a receptacle for values, beliefs, attitudes, mindsets, ways of doing, written rules, unwritten rules, behaviours, processes, systems etc, is simply a proxy, perhaps a good one, to describe a big over-used concept, explain-it-all managerial deux-ex-machina.

‘Culture’ is a messy overstuffed supermarket, pick and mix, suit yourself territory. Give me a big glass of wine and I will have with you a long conversation about it. Ask me to change a culture and we can have as many conversations and glasses as you want and nothing will happen until we get to behaviours. Behaviours create cultures. The rest is the scaffolding.

Translation. Do you want a culture of accountability?

Option one. Let’s define the value of accountability, the reasons why accountability is important, the potential ways to describe and teach accountability, the significant role of accountability in leadership, how to ensure accountability is in the performance management system, bring in the 500 CEO ‘research’ on the inescapable truth that accountability breeds success, and, of course, have accountability in  the value system printed on those Technicolor cards. I can guarantee that still nobody knows what culture of accountability is. I can also guarantee that it was a good ride of meetings, powerpoints and HR practices. But not clarity. 100 competing ideas. 200 versions. One advertising agency.

Option two. Tell me what is that you want to see (and not see), that people do, that can be pointed to, visible, granular, concrete, that has reached certain scale and that, because of all that, you then say ‘this is a culture of accountability’. Whatever it is, one, two, ten things, if we can inject them and multiply them, if this is the culture you want, I am very happy to agree to a  label of ‘culture of accountability’ that hosts all those things that people can see and observe.

The added value of option two is that if Peter says ‘this is actually a culture of teamwork’, he may be right. If Mary says, ‘what a minute, this is really a  culture of collaboration and respect for others’, she may be right as well.  And John, oh! John always sees things differently, says ‘this is precisely the core of an agile and results- oriented culture’. John is right. Usually he is. Agonizing discussions about ‘the concept and the definition of’ go out of the window once we agree on behaviours. The label becomes less relevant (if not irrelevant). What matters is that we all agree what to see, what to seek, what to reward, what to multiply. Collective mental health wins. Whatever you want to call it, we want more of ‘it’.

‘Cultures of accountability’ don’t have a thing called accountability in the water supply, in the air, on the walls of meeting rooms, in the hanging security card. They have a specific set of behaviours. If you want more of ‘that culture’, spread and multiply behaviours (tip: avoid classrooms, there is no record of any culture having ever been created in one of them), then you ‘get’ that culture.

Which takes us to the irritating paradox and daring statement that reads as follows: ‘cultures of accountability’ do not create accountability behaviours, unless they have them already. Or have other behaviours that trigger those behaviours that you can call ‘of accountability’. How they got into the receptacle, is irrelevant.

Now, about that glass?

PS. Tip 2. Behaviours scale because are copied. At scale. Have people exhibiting those behaviours. Either you need legions of them or small numbers of those with high influence. And you need an orchestrated and well oiled platform to make it happen.

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