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  • Writer's pictureNavvir Pasricha

Why You Should Care About The Ladder of Accountability

In 2005, a TV comedy debuted on Fox about a petty criminal who wins a lottery only to be hit by a car. He decides that his accident was a result of all the negative things he has done and vows to do the right thing by all the people he wronged. The TV show, named “My Name is Earl” showed how a bumbling idiot tried to turn his life around by accepting his mistakes and take active steps to change. While the show did not call it out, what Earl Hickey was doing was taking accountability for his actions and moving up what is called the accountability ladder.

The accountability ladder is a tool that helps assess the level of accountability in an organization. It enables individuals to gauge how accountable they are being in a given situation and, prompts them to adjust their mannerisms and behaviours from a level 0 to a level 4.

The ladder was first published in 1994 by Connors, Smith and Hickman who defined accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving the desired result.

But why does accountability matter?

By its very definition, accountability requires a person to take ownership of their tasks. This includes taking the blame when something goes wrong but also taking credit when something goes right. If an individual is able to fully accept accountability for their actions, research shows that they are 57% more likely to put in discretionary effort into their work. This means that they will go the extra step to ensure the best experience possible for customers, the most efficient delivery for projects and increased output for their company. In short, accountability is directly linked to an individual’s level of engagement.

For example, let us imagine the office of an insurance company. Two colleagues, one with high accountability and one with low accountability are walking back to their desks from a meeting. They walk past an elderly customer, standing at the directory with an envelope in their hand. The person with low levels of accountability might have the mindset of “if that person needed my help, they would ask me”. However, the person with high accountability, might either approach the customer directly to ask if they can be of assistance or at the very least, get someone else to attend to the customer.

The difference in how each employee treats the customer shows the contrasting mindset between both employees. Whilst it is in neither one of their job descriptions, the person with higher accountability still takes the effort to help out because they have taken it onto themselves to deliver the best customer experience possible.

The accountability ladder can also be used when dealing with a member of your team that has a complaint. By invoking the ladder, a leader can indicate to the team member that the team member is not taking any steps to resolve the issue and that they are running to their leader to ‘pass the monkey’ onwards to the leader. While this does have its place in the workforce, it is unreasonable to expect a leader to have to solve every issue a team member might face. Building accountability in a team means that each team member feels that they are empowered to make a decision that will help overcome the issues that the team faces on a day to day basis.

How Do I Start Using the Ladder?

First of all, start by accepting that this ladder will not solve all your problems. It is not designed to do that. It will help you build a team that; is more accountable for their actions, willing to accept their shortcomings and focuses on finding and implementing solutions to problems rather than just highlighting issues and expect you to solve them.

As long as you are clear on the above and understand how the ladder can help, you can start your journey.

Start by understanding each rung of the ladder. Whilst we can’t cover each rung in great detail, here is a handy chart that you can print out and keep as talking points for yourself.

Now that you understand each rung, you could start by introducing the concept to the entire team.

The best way to do this is by repetition. Once you have introduced the concept, make sure it remains relevant to your team. Create activities where your team needs to determine where someone is on the ladder. Share stories of how you or your manager have utilised the accountability ladder to self correct your attitude.

After two weeks or so, move beyond hypotheticals and put it into practice.

Make it Real

If you are lucky enough to work in an organization where weekly one on ones with your team members are required, you should use those weekly interactions to ingrain the accountability ladder to your team.

Start off by asking them simple questions like what do they think about the ladder. Follow up with probing questions about any concerns they might have. Reiterate why accountability is something you want the team to embrace. Answer the most common question before waiting for them to ask it - What’s In It For Me?

The answer is simple, as each individual climbs up the accountability ladder, they are more likely to go over and beyond in their tasks. This added effort and sense of ownership will be recognized by senior management who could choose to promote the individual. Furthermore, the individual would be able to use instances where they were high on the accountability ladder in subsequent interviews in other companies.

Throughout this process, keep in mind that your goal should not be to rush everyone to a level 3. Remember that everyone is on their own journey and not everyone, including you, will be at a level 3 in every given situation. Similarly, you should accept that some people aren’t going to want to change from level 0 despite your best efforts.

This does not mean that you have failed. It could just mean that you need to keep searching for the solution to your problem. We, at Dicorm could help! Contact us now to learn more about the accountability ladder or if you have any questions about the concept.

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