Four Steps to Develop a Culture of Personal Accountability

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Our hospital manager knocked on my open office door. I looked up as she entered for our weekly meeting. Of all my activities and responsibilities overseeing the health of the animals at San Diego Zoo Global, few were more enjoyable and valuable than my one-on-one meetings with my managers. Each week, I would discover something of crucial importance. Our managers took to heart their huge job responsibilities; as a result, doing my job was much less demanding than it could have been.

Accountability or servant leadership?

On this particular day, our hospital manager came prepared with an insightful question. She had joined us just over a year before and was trying her best to work within the servant leadership framework. Her problem was how to serve her team while holding them accountable. She also pointed out we had not even come to agreement on what acceptable behaviors look like. 

Our conversation that morning helped me recognize we had a problem. From there, my management team stepped in to find a solution. Several months later, we had a document in place, based heavily on staff input.

Creating workplace standards can be tricky business. We didn’t want these standards to convey we cared more about rules than the people they were meant to serve. How could we hold people accountable and still serve our staff’s needs? 

We found the following process helpful in answering that question. 

1. Align with organizational values

We started with our organization’s code of conduct, which includes seven statements. That became our foundation. If that had not been available, we would have used other resources, such as value, purpose and mission statements.

2. Clarify and define expectations

Clarity of roles and responsibilities is vital. Without clarity, holding people accountable for         desired behavior is both difficult and unfair. For achieving clarity, we rewrote the standards using phrases that reflect the unique nature of our workplace, e.g., "Be accountable." We used a catchphrase to sum up and make the standard more relevant to us, e.g., "Take responsibility." We wrote clarifying questions to help identify specific, desirable behaviors, e.g., "Am I blaming others?" and “Do I take responsibility for my actions?”

3. Ensure ownership by staff at all levels

We enlisted each of our workgroups to provide their input and edits. It was important that each team member had a say in the content. We wanted the front-line staff to take ownership.

4. Apply the standards consistently and speak of them frequently

We used the standards to reinforce desired behavior and point out unacceptable behavior. They became a part of our recruitment and hiring process. We desired personal accountability to become part of our culture.

A work in progress

Behavior-based standards are a must for a healthy work environment. They help make accountability a part of everyone’s job and provide safe boundaries to work within. They become reassuring when implemented in the context of honoring employees and their commitment to the organization.

During my subsequent one-on-one manager meetings, I heard creative ways managers had guided their teams through the use of the standards. Developing a culture of personal accountability will always be a work in progress. However, well-crafted and well-implemented behavior-based standards are a useful tool that help turn old ways of accountability upside down. Moreover, attaining that culture can be done best by serving others.

How would you answer the question: As a servant leader, how can I best hold people accountable for their behavior?

To learn more about how to put behavior-based standards in place and see those of the San Diego Zoo Global’s Animal Health Team, read Upside Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian's Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader.” You’ll find the book at