Making Accountability a Key Factor

We talk often to our clients / potential clients about the importance of accountability and responsibility. Businesses who handle this well and ensure that work is correctly distributed where people understand how what they deliver counts in the overall delivery of company goals, do better – fact.

It is more important than ever in today’s marketplace to ensure that a degree of compassion is shown when talking about accountability. The pandemic brought the welfare of people right to the fore in company thoughts with offers of flexibility, and other support to help their people navigate a stressful time. But reality has bitten now and with the financial state of the country not as good as we would hope and the business landscape being tough many benefits have been withdrawn and requests for people to return to the office have increased – mandated by some. Pressure has inevitably increased on getting results, meeting deadlines, hitting targets, and growing revenues – all crucial for business success.

But this pressure does not need to be a problem as long as the purpose is to achieve the goals while incorporating the needs of the people involved in delivering them. So, what are the most effective ways of creating accountability across all levels of an business?

A few thoughts:

Recent research shows that people perceive accountability in one of two ways:

1) Threatening

This is the type which, sadly, most leaders deploy. It involves catching people doing something wrong which creates a culture of threat and blame.

2) Worth Owning

Accountability perceived by the employee as worth owning sees the individual taking ownership of a task as an opportunity for growth and also see ‘misses’ as chances to improve.

Of course we want the second type of accountability as encouraging a growth mindset accelerates an individual’s performance, their learning and flexibility and overall well-being. This type of accountability is positive about people taking calculated risks and encourages a growth mindset. This has huge ‘knock-on’ benefits for team culture. It compels people to find solutions to the mistakes others have made rather than the ‘blame and shame’ tactic.

Viewing accountability as a worthy challenge is empowering in that it’s an “opt-in” approach. While threatening accountability holds people accountable, this second type of accountability lets people choose to be accountable. Because employees can see there are benefits to learning and growing while taking ownership of their work, they feel more personally invested in accepting important challenges.

A few ideas on how to set this up within your business:

Leaders need to visualise what is likely to happen when they give someone a task or directive — picture the task and communicate it in a way that ensures shared understanding. The more you can paint a mental picture for yourself as a leader on how you would like the job done and (importantly) what obstacles the person may encounter, the easier it will be to communicate that vision to the employee.

By going through this exercise, leaders can help create a mental picture in their employee’s mind of what success looks like. The clearer leaders can be, the easier it will be for employees to turn intentions into the appropriate actions.

The challenge for the leader involves understanding another person’s perspective — what questions they may have, obstacles that could arise for them, and their own unique strengths and challenges. Resist the temptation to look at this from your perspective and ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ and ‘see the world as they see it’. With effort people can meaningfully improve in their ability to think ahead, both as leaders giving out tasks and as individuals accepting them.

When employees are told to do one thing and see their leaders doing another, the mismatched expectations can register as a threat, sapping their motivation. Inevitably unmet commitments usually lead to new, lower expectations of the leader.

As an example, let’s say a leader sets a firm deadline for the team around a big department-wide project but can’t meet the deadline for their portion of the work. In addition to lowering expectations for themselves, the leader risks creating a fairness threat that could cause employees to shirk future deadlines and disengage from important projects. If, instead, the leader had owned their commitments, they would have prioritised ahead of time and met their deadline, reinforcing for their team the importance of all staying accountable.

Lastly, accountability is all about growth. When stakes are high, failures are bound to happen. What matters most is that leaders respond to those failures with an impulse toward learning, not punishment. This approach is a hallmark of a growth mindset, and it requires a climate of psychological safety that enables people to admit their mistakes.

Let’s say someone makes a mistake that causes sales numbers to be wrong. A leader who cultivates punitive accountability might blame the person who made the mistake and force them to work all night to fix the error. This, in turn, may lead team members to start blaming each other for fear of being “held accountable.”

Supportive management of accountability accepts that everyone makes mistakes, so everyone has a stake in fixing them — and then getting better next time. In the above example, a leader who practices this type of accountability might bring the team together and ask – ‘’What actions will move the project forward?’’ Perhaps others will volunteer to work an extra hour to help the team meet the deadline.

Fixing the team on solutions means letting go of blame and working to make things better. It means debriefing deeply on both wins and failures, and constantly seeking creative ways of solving problems instead of reasons for failure. Leaders need to be intentional about focusing on the way forward, not on finding out whose fault it is.

Summing Up

Accountability may seem like a dirty word, as if results and working together can’t coexist. But in healthy organisations, leaders are clear about what they expect out of their team and the role they play in that process. They visualise how things could go wrong and get ahead of those obstacles – they keep the team focused on outcomes, not punishments for mistakes.

Teams that engage in these habits are better equipped to be firm and candid with one another because each team member feels safe and secure about their standing in the group. There is less pressure, in other words, to uphold a culture of niceness because each member trusts in their value.

When leaders build the right habits — thinking ahead, owning their commitments, and anchoring on solutions — they’ll find the balancing act of accountability considers individual needs while still ensuring the job gets done.

Already have your accountability perfected?

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