There’s been a lot written recently about culture. A shocker to me was the New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising
Workplace” (Aug. 15,2015). The authors write that: the company is “conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is
acceptable.” Employees are encouraged to rip apart colleague’s ideas (to make them better), challenge everything, secretly report on their peers to their bosses. Competitiveness and
rivalries are encouraged. All this in search of competitive advantage.
For example, employees in Amazon warehouses are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are meeting the standard for number of boxes packed every hour.
People had to attend marathon conference calls on important holidays and were chastised for not responding to emails while on vacation or in the middle of the night. Employees
often feel their work is never done or quite good enough. As one employee put it: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”
I’ll end the examples with one I find personally distasteful. Here’s the quote from the NY Times article:
A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” – Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired: – because
“difficulties” in her “personal life:” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals.
The article abounds with stories and examples about Jeff Bezos’ experiment and steadfast belief in what he is doing and the culture he is creating at Amazon. The result: an unhealthy
culture and a stream of highly talented people walking out the door.
Even so, Amazon is building new facilities to accommodate up to 50,000 workers at their South Lake Union campus. Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer. Every Monday,
people are lined up to start their Amazon career. Bezos’ is the 15th wealthiest man on the Forbes list.
This begs the question: How important is culture? The NY Times article and another article in Forbes by Katina Stefanova (Is Amazon’s Ruthless Management Culture Hurting Its Stock
Price?) started me thinking about the importance of culture, climate and accountability.
Culture and Climate
We’ve all read about the importance of both culture and strategy. You’ve probably read about how “culture eats strategy for lunch” or “culture kills strategy”. But, what about
culture and climate? Let’s start with some definitions.
Organizational Culture is comprised of the shared beliefs, expectations, assumptions, values, and norms that govern how people behave in organizations.
Organizational climate refers to attitudes and feelings that characterize life in an organization.
Culture and climate combine to create unique social and psychological environments within organizations. It is these social and psychological environments that asserts the biggest
influence on accountability.
I define accountability as “Owning a project or task (being personally responsible) and being answerable for your decisions, your actions, and the results.”
The research is very clear: Accountability is dependent upon many organizational and psychological variables. For example: the desire to be viewed favorably, the importance of the work or project, the history of success or failure of projects within the organization, the consequences associated with failure, a leader’s reputation, relationships with peers and with supervisors, and how tightly knit teams are. All of these, and more, influence whether one will accept full ownership of a project or be personally answerable for the results. My research notes at least 50 factors affecting one’s decision to be accountable or not.
Accountability, Culture and Climate
Accountability is influenced by both organizational culture and climate. It is more closely aligned with organizational climate because accountability and climate are based on feelings and beliefs about the organization and its culture.
You have to create a positive culture, if you want to increase accountability. People are more likely to be accountable when they are not criticized or ridiculed. They will accept ownership and be answerable when they are trusted and respected.
Getting back to Amazon… some of the characteristics of its environment were hoarding, secretiveness, attacking, unhealthy competitiveness, and people being made to feel
incompetent. All of these contribute to a lack of accountability. Managers tried to make people accountable by blaming them for their results or lack of results. Blaming someone is
not making them accountable.
I’m assuming that you are a professional concerned with the effectiveness of organizations.
Perhaps you do OD work, are in HR, or perhaps a training professional. We all want to make organizations and the people in them better. To do that, I believe that we must focus
on the factors that can be managed or improved. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Open Communication
- Organizational Structure
- Standards of Behavior
- Rewards and Recognition
- Performance Management
- Job Descriptions
- Physical Work Environment
- Organizational Connectedness
If we can improve these by making them more accurate, more people-centered, and more accepting, we can improve accountability as well as organizational climate.
My goal and my company’s goal is to increase effectiveness through increased accountability. Toward that objective we work with organizations to improve culture and climate. We know that they are a closely intertwined and we know that accountability is part of that knot.