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Accountability Done Right

Why does accountability seem so difficult for most people? Your coworkers don’t deliver on time, your employees are not meeting standards, and even your boss doesn’t follow through on things she has promised. These are signs of a lack of accountability in the culture of an organization or team.

Some of the most common reasons people fail to create an accountable culture include:

  • Failing to create psychological safety
  • Failing to set clear expectations
  • Failing to give clear and timely feedback
  • Failing to be curious about why things are not working

Think about the most recent time you were disappointed in someone’s work. Which of the above reasons may have played a part in that disappointment, or might allow it to continue?

How Do You Improve The Accountability Of Your Team?

Psychological Safety

Perhaps the most important element when thinking about accountability is to create an environment in which these conversations can take place. This requires letting go of blaming behaviors and creating psychological safety through curiosity and openness. When someone makes a mistake or fails, what happens? In an accountability culture, a private conversation with that person would happen immediately and includes specific questions about what happened. Questions like:

  • How do you think that went?
  • What was your expectation for this work?
  • What got in the way? or
  • How could we do it better?

indicate a continuous improvement and development approach, not a punitive one.

This may be your accountability challenge if people are slow to admit mistakes, it always seems to be someone else’s fault, or if people go to great length to avoid blame (i.e.; CYA email).

Clear Expectations

Often expectations are misaligned. To create an accountable culture, expectations need to be clear and you need to confirm a common understanding of those expectations. This can take the form of team action items and dates at the end of each meeting, a common project management tool with people and dates assigned, or simply a summary of agreed actions or goals prepared at the end of a conversation.

If this is preventing people from being accountable, you may hear things like: “Oh, I didn’t know that was the due date”, “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted it in that format”, or “I thought you were going to proof-read it”.

Giving Feedback

Many people assume that others “just know” that they’re not meeting expectations and we don’t need to tell them. While this may sometimes be the case, everyone benefits from regular clear feedback to adjust expectations, to clarify the importance and priority of the work, and to understand what is working and what is not. Critical feedback should be given in private in almost all cases, and it is a two-way conversation to understand the other person’s perspective and engage them in problem solving.

This may be preventing accountability in your team if poor performance is not improving, people make the same mistakes over and over again, and people are surprised when they get negative performance evaluations.

Being Curious

It is human to assign motive to other people’s actions and we are often completely wrong. Instead of guessing about why someone didn’t meet an expectation or improve their performance, being curious means asking open questions to understand more deeply what is not working – in communication, in the work, in priority-setting, in whatever the challenge may be. Often, we do not even understand what may be creating this performance challenge or the pressure someone else is under.

You can demonstrate curiosity by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • What’s going on for you?
  • What are you struggling with?
  • How do you see the situation?
  • What do you need? etc.

This may be your problem if you are not having regular one-on-one conversations with people about their performance, if you feel the need to solve all the problems, or if you see a lack of collaboration.

Building an accountable culture requires high level communication skills and emotional intelligence. We often tell clients this is the “slow down to speed up” part of leadership where time invested in these conversations regularly prevents dysfunction and failure of accountability – which can take a lot of time to remedy. By engaging in these kinds of conversations on a regular basis, you will prevent misalignment, disengagement, and miscommunication, and build a truly high performing organization.