Dealing with the accountability problem

“In life, you have either reasons or results.” This quote (author unknown) resonated within me when I first read it at my previous organization with @Dr. R B Smarta and has been a guiding light all through my career. Unfortunately, more often, than not, throughout my 35 years of consulting with Pharma, Biologics, Animal Health, Diagnostics/Devices, and Healthcare industries, the most common angst expressed by clients has been the problem of getting their Sales Management teams to focus on results and not give reasons. In other words, to be accountable.

A very good indicator of whether your managers are accountable or not can be observed during the monthly review meetings. Typically, the reasons for non-performance include:

  • My subordinate Mr. XYZ has not performed
  • Dr. ABC has stopped prescribing
  • Season was poor
  • Stockist did not support
  • I tried…but front line salesperson did not perform
  • The competition did something unethical
  • Doctors are not giving time
  • Doctors are on leave due to the summer holidays
  • Festival season … so no sales
  • Rain or drought or floods are the cause
  • Healthy season- people are not falling sick
  • It’s the year-end so stockists are not ordering

And often the reasons given by the lower rungs of management are collated and presented to seniors for not achieving targets. Leading to a culture of helplessness, lack of ownership, and passing the buck!

Moving from a ‘reasons’ to ‘results’ culture

By definition, accountability means answerability for results with no room for reasons or excuses for non-performance. Often the things that are uncontrollable in the environment trigger demoralization. Failing to see what can be controlled, sales teams focus on what is uncontrollable and end up believing that they are helpless in the situation, ending giving up on their targets. That is why we encounter this culture of excuses or reasons for non-performance.

So how can we build a culture of accountability for results?

1. Set clear and attainable expectations

Often the starting point for making people accountable is to clarify expectations. What is expected, by when, with what resources, and what the individual can expect from the boss/organization? It goes without saying that these expectations must be attainable, reasonable, and supported by resources and training. In addition, while targets or goals must have some stretch, they should be perceived to be achievable as well. In other words, the strategy should show the “way’ to achieve the targets and clarify processes and methods. This is possibly the first step to success – getting people to visualize the HOW of achievement, thereby building confidence and motivation. Often people give up in the first month itself because they can’t see “how” targets will be achieved.

2. Use radical candor to give feedback

Sports champions thrive on feedback- even tough feedback. However, the same cannot be said in management situations. Most managers are afraid of giving direct feedback, or hurting feelings and try to get the point across with phrases like, “you must do better,’ pull yourself up” and so on. Often leaving the person receiving the feedback clueless as to how must he/she improve? What must he/she “do’ or “stop doing” or “do more of” or “less of” to perform better? Feedback should also be given close to the incident/ event with no blame statements rather with clear communication of the impression the person makes by behaving in a particular way and the consequences of long-term repetition of the same performance or patterns of behavior. In other words, leaders must develop the skill of radical candor.

3. Build capability

In a rapidly changing and volatile world, it is important to build skills and capability. Old skills which were relevant for an old-world are becoming obsolete as fast as new technology is emerging. Add to that stiff competition, talent management issues, and new skills needed to thrive and grow, it is vital that an organization invests in building its people capability.

A team’s problem of not being accountable could be an underlying coaching problem. Therefore, the coaching must be both formal and informal. Interventions planned should not just be patchwork or motivational in nature but should be planned in a continuous development manner, building skills much like constructing a strong building- layer upon layer. Skills must be a combination of functional skills which improve the technical competence of the team as well as soft skills which improve people management.

4. Make accountability a habit

Accountability starts at the top. It is demonstrated best by modeling behavior.

Holding oneself accountable to the team for promises made and delivering on them is a clear demonstration of the ‘Results, not reasons’ culture.

It is also important to enable owning up for failures without dire consequences, creating a culture to fail and learn and yet grow and perform better. Seeking feedback from your team is also a great way of showing you are willing to be answerable to them.

5. Measure and monitor

“What gets measured gets done.” Measure performance using lag measures and monitor using lead measures. Flag potential problems or obstacles and solve problems for the team. Regular measurement of performance will slowly communicate that less than ‘100 % Performance is non-negotiable’ slowly creating a culture of accountability within the organization or team.

Dr. Ruth D’Souza, Managing Director of the corporate training firm, specializes in sharpening the execution skills of sales and marketing teams in the Pharmaceutical, Biologics, Animal Health, Diagnostics, and Healthcare industries.

You can reach her via LinkedIn or at