Create a Culture of Accountability the Right Way

In many schools, accountability is something that happens to you when something has gone wrong. It creates a culture of fear, a culture that is not based on trust and a culture that wants to avoid being accountable if at all possible. It is a culture that doesn’t work.

Accountability, done the right way, is powerful, positive and enabling. It doesn’t punish for missteps and failures, it builds foundations for success for all stakeholders and the school. Accountability defines “the way we do things around here.” It can produce greater transparency and openness, enhancing trust and teamwork and creating more effective communication and dialogue.

This post is based on the simple belief that school culture is defined as the way people think and act. The role of the school leader is to manage the school culture in a way that everyone thinks and acts in the manner necessary to achieve the desired results. This cannot be done through fear. Fear fosters a mentality of survival, staff are more concerned about themselves and protecting what they have, that they don’t focus on doing the things that are necessary for the school to change and grow.

School culture results from the experiences that leaders create for their staff. These experiences, in turn, shape the beliefs of all stakeholders about how things are done around here, which, in turn, drive the actions that people take.

Based on Roger Connors & Tom Smith

If school leaders deliver experiences that are negative and fear-based, then it is easy to see how the culture becomes based on self-preservation. If instead, the experiences are positive and based on trust and respect then the way we do things around here is based on trust and respect.

If your results depend on your culture, then the results that you want dictate the culture that you create. As a school leader, you define the results that you want. What is your focus? I would suggest that if your desired results ignore the wellbeing and needs of your staff, then your culture will not supply the things that they need. With staff wellbeing high on the agenda for recruitment and retention, you ignore it at your peril.

A culture of accountability cannot be forced on any organisation. If it is, it becomes a culture of fear. Instead, it must be built, shaped and optimized. The key principles of accountability aren’t responsibility and blame. “It was your job -> It’s your fault.” leads to negative thinking and the victim cycle.

Accountable thinking, according to Connors & Smith in The Oz Principle, is based on 4 simple steps. See It. Own It. Solve It. Do It. If your culture encourages thinking where your staff see themselves as part of the solution, then they will focus on the actions that they can take to achieve the results, rather than what they cannot do to overcome obstacles.

If accountability in your school is about who to blame when things go wrong, then your culture needs to change. A culture of accountability won’t exist until the staff make the personal choice to take the steps to be accountable. They will see it, own it, solve it and do it.

Seeing it is based on open communication and honest feedback, without an underlying trust existing between leadership and staff this cannot happen. This trust is based on the experiences that you deliver. Seeing it is acknowledging the reality of any given situation. Without asking for and accepting the perspectives of others, you cannot see it.

Owning it is being personally invested in achieving the results. You accept the mission and values of the school as being your own. You learn from the successes and the failures and you align where you are and what you have done with where you want to be and what you are going to do to get there.

Solving it is the persistent effort required to overcome obstacles by asking yourself – “What else can I do?” This requires systems and support that doesn’t isolate individuals but allows them to make the effort and not be afraid of failure.

Doing it is the end result of the previous three steps. It means doing what you say you will do. Focus on the things that matter and not blaming anyone for any failures that may (will) happen along the way.

Once everyone is taking the steps to accountability, they are moving away from the notion that accountability is getting caught failing. They are willing participants in a results-oriented culture that works.

By changing the way people think, you create longer-lasting change than if you just focus on their actions. Just changing what you do doesn’t change “the way we do things around here.” You may get compliance (to a degree) but you don’t get a commitment to change. You may get involvement, but you don’t get investment. There may be progress, but you don’t get sustained performance.

What else can you do to create the right culture of accountability?

I highly recommend reading the following two books as your starting point. They may be geared towards businesses and corporate organisations, but the principles that underline change are very valid for organisations such as schools. This article is based on notes I took when I first read them.

  • The Oz Principle – Roger Connors, Tom Smith & Craig Hickman
  • Change the Culture, Change the Game – Roger Connors & Tom Smith

Stop focussing solely on results and actions, get the culture right and everyone else will focus on that for you.