What are millennials’ views on accountability? One news source says it’s what they want; but another says they’re unable to take any type of it. Accountability is a charged word with many meanings. Reading these articles, I wondered how they were defining the term and how it differs across generations. Do older generations want millennials to be held more accountable? Is accountability a negative thing across generations — does it mean you’re taking blame? I interviewed Roger Connors and Mattson Newell from Partners in Leadership to find out more. Connors is CEO of Partners in Leadership and a three-time New York Times best-selling author on the topics of accountability and culture change. A millennial himself, Mattson is regional vice president for Partners in Leadership.
Let’s define “accountability” in today’s workplace. What does it mean? How has it shifted over time?
Connors:As a topic, “accountability” usually only comes up in an organization when something goes wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way. While we typically see people running from accountability rather than embracing it, it’s generally because they don’t want to be the ones to be held accountable. In part it’s because the common definition of accountability according to Webster’s is “subject to having to report, explain or justify; responsible, answerable.”That’spunitive by nature and almost begging us to come up with excuses to avoid being “subject to” anyone or anything. In our first book, “The Oz Principle,” we established a new definition as, “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving key results: to see it, own it, solve it and do it.”
Newell: Millennials resist the old view of accountability — they want something more. They wanta very empowering view and a clear shift away from the cultural view of accountability, which grew out of the 1950s and ’60s command-control-type mindset. Then, accountability was something forced upon you and not something you took upon yourself. While that might have sufficed for generations past, it won’t work for our world today. The more empowering, results-focused definition is what will lead anyone — millennial or not — to success in today’s workplace.
How do different age groups perceive accountability today?
Connors: Each generation — from young to old — sees accountability differently. In the past 25 years, we have seen a significant increase in the demand for accountability. More now than ever, individuals and organizations are trying to create accountability, but many are going about it the wrong way. What hasn’t changed over this same span of time is our fundamental premise — that accountability begins with clearly defined results. This might sound like common sense, but unfortunately it’s not common practice. Our own studies conducted over a two-year period of time with over 40,000 respondents from small startups to Fortune 50 companies across the world demonstrated that:
- 86 percent of respondents felt that key results were not clearly defined or understood in the organization.
- 87 percent of respondents said that priorities change frequently, creating confusion around the key results they need to achieve.
As you can see, it’s not exactly true that organizations are failing to hold their people accountable, but more likely that it’s not clear what the organizational leaders are trying to achieve. It only follows that trying to hold people accountable to moving targets and shifting priorities is not only hard, it’s impossible.
Newell:We millennials need better direction than that. We need key results. We can then contribute and succeed. Accountability to clearly defined key results may be the defining topic of our generation.
What’s the problem with it in today’s workplace?
Connors: We are constantly hearing about Gen Y and the challenges they pose to the global workforce. Further trepidation arises within organizations with reports from, among others, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that predicted millennials overtaking the majority representation of the workforce by 2015 and more stunning results by 2030 with this hyper-connected, tech-savvy generation making up 75 percent of the workforce. Sadly, any executive throwing their hands in the air and exclaiming that they can’t figure this generation out is simply avoiding an impending reality. Importantly, rather than view this as an isolated generational problem, we need to face it as a transformational workforce problem. A closer look reveals that organizations are not just facing a millennial problem, they are in reality facing a deep-seated accountability problem exacerbated by a rising generation that demands clearer direction.
Newell:That’s exactly right. If you don’t get accountability right, you won’t get much else right either. Our research points to the fact that Gen Y are not just content to work for a company, they want to work for something greater — they want to work for a cause. They will take accountability for results, but too few of their employers have a sure enough foundation in place to give them that opportunity.
How does accountability fit into an organization’s culture?
Connors: We wish more executives and line managers would ask that question. Accountability is central to any successful organization’s culture. In fact, it’s the central premise of our book, “Change the Culture, Change the Game.” We have found that it’s the organization’s culture that produces its results. If you are achieving your desired results, then your culture is aligned to achieve that. Conversely, if you are not achieving the results you want, or if those results are at risk, you might want to look at your culture as the culprit. The day you take your culture seriously and hold it responsible for the results you are achieving is the day you begin to take accountability seriously as well. No matter the generational issue, culture leads to results. A simple culture-correcting force begins with our harder-working definition of accountability.