Kasey Hickey

Head of Content at BetterUp

Posted in: Organizational Learning


How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

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How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

Fred Kofman, Vice President of Leadership & Organizational Development at LinkedIn and Director of Conscious Business Center, recently spoke at BetterUp Shift 2018, an event which brought together the most innovative leaders and thinkers in HR and people development to discuss how to infuse greater meaning into the employee experience. In this exclusive recap of his presentation, Kofman shares how our genes may be working against us, and what we can do to counteract our impulses.

You can access the recording for this session by registering for the Shift 2018 Digital Conference Experience.


Society has undergone rapid changes in the thousands of years that we’ve been on planet Earth. But what originally served us, from a genetic perspective, may not be serving us so well in our current environment. According to Fred Kofman, Vice President of Leadership and Organizational Development at LinkedIn, doing what feels right might not actually be good, especially in the workplace.

The price of power is accountability, and the price of innocence is impotenceClick To Tweet

Fred – who has a PhD in economics, taught at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and leads seminars around the world – believes that we’re genetically programmed to do things in a certain way, and that this genetic programming often conflicts with the strides we’re trying to make in our workplaces and careers.

“We are genetically programmed to do what doesn’t help us,” said Fred. “If we follow what seems right or feels good, sometimes it will be ok, but it’s really a game of Russian Roulette.” Fred’s take is that when we follow what feels good, we’re likely to shoot ourselves in the head sooner or later. Yikes.

At BetterUp’s Shift 2018 Conference, Fred shared his take on how our genetic programming can get in the way of success, as well as how we can create a culture of accountability in our workplaces. Spoiler: Fred thinks coaching can help.

How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

We’re genetically programmed for environments that no longer exist

We’re genetically programmed to be angry with people who harm us, and to maintain innocence rather than take responsibility.Click To Tweet

We have evolved to not be happy or have meaning in our lives. “Genetically, we are robots that just carry genes from one generation to the next,” said Fred. “We’re not the players of the game, we’re just the vehicles for the genes.” Once we’ve procreated, probably we should disappear as soon as possible to make room for the next generation.

Our genetic impulses are not in tune with our environment today. For example, in the past, the probability of starving to death was greater than the risk of heart disease. It was more advantageous to be heavier. When a famine came, the heaviest would survive. Additionally, we’re genetically programmed to be angry with people who harm us, and to maintain innocence rather than take responsibility.

We maintain innocence at all costs, starting as children

Have you ever been in a meeting when someone else comes late? People say they hit traffic or that another meeting went too long. This is because no one wants to say they didn’t set their morning alarm, leave their house on time, or keep track of their calendar. They’re unable to take direct responsibility for their actions. They don’t hold themselves accountable.

According to Fred, everything that happens in life can be positioned into vectors:

  • Within my control
  • Out of my control

We all would prefer to be in control of our lives, but when we’re late to a meeting, we forget about wanting to be in control, and blame our tardiness on something other than ourselves.

“This is because we’re addicted to a drug,” said Fred. “That drug is called innocence.” According to Fred, this isn’t much of a choice. “Striving for innocence is not a conscious decision that we make,” he said. “Even children say ‘the toy broke’ rather than ‘I broke the toy.’”

Why we’re all innocent at work, too

We grow up and claim innocence in our office environment.

How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

We grow up and claim innocence in our office environment. In the table below, consider the difference between how it sounds when we claim innocence vs. when we take the blame:

Claiming innocence Taking blame
The project got delayed. I mismanaged the time for this project.
The file got lost. I lost the file.
This job is too difficult. I don’t know how to do this job.

Our pattern as humans, according to Fred, is that we choose to explain things that happen as out of our control, because maintaining innocence was once an evolutionary advantage. It feels good, somehow, to be the victim. “Being blameless had survival power many years ago, but today it will kill you,” said Fred. “It will disempower you, your team, and your organization.”

Taking accountability and rising up to the challenge

We can take control by saying “I am the subject of my life, and I am not a spectator” — Fred Kofman

We have the chance to change how we approach our work, by choosing to tell the story in the first person. “We can take control by saying ‘I am the subject of my life, and I am not a spectator,” said Fred. “My life is mine, so I am going to be part of every problem. If you’re not part of the problem, then you can’t be part of the solution.”

By being a part of the system, you can be part of the change in the system, but this doesn’t always feel good. Fred reminded us that the price of power is accountability, and the price of innocence is impotence. If we want to make a difference in the workplace, if we want to rise up and perform better, then we have to insert ourselves into these narratives and take ownership over the things that happen.

Even so, this is challenging, and Fred describes the process of taking accountability as an acquired taste. “You’re not going to want to go to the gym until you go to the gym enough times that you can perform there,” he said. “This is similar. No child will choose kale over french fries.”

Ultimately, everything that happens in your life is a result of your ability to respond to a challenge. The challenge is a given, but what’s not a given is how you respond to it.

How coaching makes a difference

According to Fred, we all have to recognize that we’ll continue telling our story as victims, and unless we do something about it, we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs, and so will our organizations.

Fred acknowledges that making yourself the main character in your story does not come naturally. No one can summon this without some help. “You need someone who is not part of the problem to guide you towards this,” he said.

Fred believes in the power of coaching. He’s seen how it can help people take responsibility first-hand. Coaching isn’t new-fangled. It’s a fundamental part of human society. “Coaching is not a new thing,” said Fred. “It’s been going on since the first humans. It’s existed since the first attempt to get beyond the tyranny of the present.”

Preventing extinction

The environments that we live in are far different from the ones our bodies were built for. Our taste buds encourage us to eat fat and sugar because, at one time, these were hard for us to get a hold of. And in times of famine, those who had extra meat on their bones were more likely to survive.

Today, we should reflect on how we can change our behaviors to better support our careers and the organizations we serve. That means putting the victim aside and taking accountability.

Want to learn more about Fred Kofman? Read Authentic Communication: Transforming Difficult Conversations in the Workplace, as well as Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values. You can also watch Kofman discuss conscious business in the LinkedIn Speaker Series.

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