With the pace and complexity of business, accountability is getting a lot of attention in organizations today. Put simply, accountability is being responsible for doing what you say you will do. It’s keeping your promises.
As leaders, we like to say we hold others accountable, or we have people holding us accountable. But this is only part of the solution for building accountability in an organization. It’s not going to ensure consistent accountability across the business, and the reason is simple: It relies on the individual. And individuals can fail. Sometimes they’ll remember to hold each other accountable; sometimes they won’t.
When you think about it, asking someone else to hold you accountable is just another way of passing the buck. In essence, you’re asking them to remind you of your promises. A better scenario is an environment where groups of people hold others accountable.
That’s what happens when you have a culture of accountability.
Culture is the ultimate environment for holding people accountable. It’s where accountability is ingrained as a mode of operation. You don’t have to remember that people are supposed to keep their promises; it’s just the way you act as an organization. And it reminds everyone that, in all circumstances, people must do what they say they’re going to do.
Culture isn’t established overnight; it’s created over time and resides in the people who have been in the company for some extended period of time. It’s also reflected in all of the organization’s processes, policies, and everyday actions and behaviors. If you’re developing a process, for example, and you have a culture of accountability, the controls you put in place will look quite different than they would in a culture without it. Without it, you’ll have to build in more controls, because you won’t have the trust or confidence that people will actually do what they’re supposed to do.
Creating a culture of accountability naturally means you’re changing the culture, and that takes some real time and effort. Before you can do this, you need to understand that everything people work on in your organization has a time, effort and result attached to it. That work triangle needs to be in harmony, with all three sides working in relationship with one another, for success. This is critical to recognize because if the promises people make (or are expected to make) aren’t feasible, then they’re not valid promises. You can’t hold someone accountable for an unreasonable promise.
As a result, you have to learn to manipulate the work triangle: Only two sides can be constrained at any one time, and the third has to be calculated based on the other two. If time and results are set, then effort will have to be determined based on them. This third side has to be negotiable — it has to flex to find that harmonious state.
There are several key areas in your organization that play a role in building a culture of accountability:
How Work is Assigned: This first thing we have to think about when we talk about people being accountable is how work should be assigned. To build accountability, you should provide all the information the person needs to make a good agreement, give them the authority to do the work, constrain only two sides of the project work triangle, and ask what they need on the remaining side of the work triangle for it to be successful.
How Agreements are Established: People who work in an accountable culture will always restate what needs to be done and get clarity about the end result or deliverable that is expected of them. This makes sure both parties are agreeing to the agreement. And that’s a good thing: If someone really wants to understand what’s being asked of them, they’re going to get the clarity they need to keep their promises. Once you have agreement on all three sides of the triangle, and it meets the needs of the assignment, then you’ll have a good agreement.
How Agreements are Monitored: As the manager, you should ask if things are on track…and nothing more. The key is not to let the employee provide a full information dump — and not to expect it. If you ask for more, you’re simply trying to appease your anxiety. And the employee who wants to provide more is trying to convince you that you shouldn’t be anxious. Either way, it erodes accountability because it means there’s a lack of trust. Bottom line: Keep the responsibility on their side of the net.
How Accountability is Modeled: Modeling accountability starts with management. You can’t create a culture of accountability when there are different rules for managers and the people doing the work. This means, as a manager, you not only have to do what you say, you also have to make sure others are comfortable and empowered to speak up when management doesn’t keep its promises. The way you do this is by apologizing and saying “thank you for reminding me” when someone points out that you’ve dropped the ball. In fact, you should welcome it when they do, because it means the culture is beginning to form. When employees feel they can hold management accountable, they’ll also feel free to hold their peers accountable.
This brings up another important point, which is that accountability requires noticing. If nobody recognizes when people fail to hold their promises, you can’t establish accountability in the culture. There can be no free passes based on seniority. Everyone has to be held accountable every time, and it starts with the small promises. If you’re consistent with the small promises that are made, then the big ones will take care of themselves, because the message to everyone is clear: There’s a certain level of behavior that we’re going to expect. People will notice, and the culture will begin to change. If someone keeps a promise, thank them for doing so. Both positive and negative reinforcement is needed.
Consistency is the key with accountability, but the problem is, it’s hard. As a manager, you can’t afford to not give feedback when things are done or not done, but you have a lot going on. Tools can make it easier.
For smaller sized agreements, consider task management tools like Todoist, which allow you to assign things to people and get alerts when tasks are completed or overdue. This helps you automate the process of responding when people are or aren’t meeting their accountabilities. For larger agreements, you’ll probably need a more robust project management app or system.
Even with all of these components in place, certain management behaviors will erode your culture of accountability — not responding to agreements being met or not met, for example, or not explicitly establishing agreements. When managers are assigning work, they have to make sure they get a firm agreement in all three of the work triangle areas.
Another common problem is managers who constrain all three sides of the work triangle. You have to give people full information to make informed free choices. Give them the opening to decide, because if it’s up to them, they’ll be more likely to hold their promise. If you decide, it’s your promise, not theirs.
And finally, one of the biggest derailers is a pattern of overwhelming people’s workloads. When that’s the norm, your employees will tell you what they hope they can do rather than what they think they can realistically do.
It’s going to take both time and discipline to instill accountability in your organization. Be prepared to pay those prices if you really want it — or don’t do it at all. If you’re not willing and not sure it’s worth it, you will be the inhibitor of accountability in your organization.