Defined: The obligation or willingness to be answerable for an outcome.
“On one side of accountability is courage, on the other is freedom.” – Jean Hamilton-Fford
The commitment to accept responsibility for outcomes often falters when individuals are confronted with blame for insufficient results. Shifting accountability to others undermines one's ability to recognize one's own power to make the changes necessary for success. A leader with strong competency in bearing personal accountability provides an inspiring model for team members to emulate. Where embracing accountability is fostered, a team's cohesion, trust, resilience, confidence and performance pride are well supported, and its potential for success in meeting its goals is strengthened.
Leaders Skilled in Accountability
- Make clear your specific set of expectations for each team member, for the team as a whole, and for the process and the outcome.
- Ensure that individuals have the capability to meet your expectations, and if not, provide the necessary training, or delegate to another person.
- Obtain clear agreement on milestones and on other specific measurements of success throughout the stages of the process.
- Provide clear, fact-based feedback on progress and overall performance of each team member, and ask for input on what more you can do to help each individual succeed.
- Clearly communicate, upfront, the rewards for success and the consequences for failure for each individual participant, for the team, and for the company.
What Prevents the Ability to Embrace Accountability
- When a leader is known to become shocked and frustrated by failure, team members may feel afraid to reach out for help and can become detached from full commitment to the outcome.
- If individuals believe that expectations are unrealistic, they may not speak up, but instead may go through the motions of attempting to meet them, though they actually expect to fail.
- When communication of roles, personal responsibilities and goals, and team objectives and goals are not ideally clear, ambiguity of purpose and methods undermines potential for success.
- If a leader, or multiple participants are viewed as unlikely to accept accountability, observing that example can discourage other team members from fully committing to outcomes.
- If process benchmarks, objectives or targeted milestones, or project goals are shifting, a sense of futility in pursuing an unstable process or changing purpose can deflate team commitment.
Self-Coaching Questions on Accountability
- Why do you think you have had trouble accepting accountability for outcomes? Has this been a long-term habit? Have you been told in the past that you do not accept responsibility?
- What is the worst consequence you recall experiencing when you did accept responsibility for a negative outcome? What was the worst consequence when you did not accept responsibility?
- For what past error or failure have you not accepted responsibility? Can you take action to correct that neglect, or intentional rejection of acknowledging your accountability?
Tips for Accepting Accountability
- Examine incidents in which you have blamed others for failure or made excuses for it. Recognize that shifting accountability disempowers you, by your relinquishing responsibility for outcomes.
- Evaluate your speech. In conversations, do you discover yourself blaming others when processes or plans don't turn out exactly as you intended?
- Allow yourself to have uncomfortable discussions. Holding an individual accountable for errors and failures is fundamental to leadership, and it is a development opportunity for you both.
- Examine and discuss suggestions for modifications of goals, objectives, processes, benchmarks, timelines and roles. Collaborate to obtain full buy-in and official commitment on all.
- Model accountability for your employees, employers, family members, clients, community and association members. Cultivate a culture around you that embraces personal accountability.
- Consider someone you know who is effective in their role and also readily accepts responsibility for small and large failures. Practice emulating their behavior of accepting accountability.
- Hire people whose character includes accepting accountability and admitting fault for errors and failures. Ask for examples of times they admitted fault. Build a team of people with integrity.
- Use a three-step process: 1) Delegate responsibility. 2) Review results. 3) Acknowledge successes, and address deficiencies. Designate performance reviews as a “no-excuses zone”.
- Entrust employees with decision-making on when and how to approach their responsibilities, and explain that their accountability is much higher than if they were working less independently.
- Establish performance benchmarks for sufficiency and insufficiency on tasks, processes and projects, and stages of each, and ensure that all team members are routinely meeting those.
- Contemplate instances in which you or others denied accountability at work, and consider the consequences of such denials to the team's progress, and how much better truth would serve.
- Preserve and build on your progress as a leader on accountability. Do not relax your standards for team members to hold themselves accountable. Be consistent.
Developmental Action Plan for Greater Accountability
- Clarify the organization's primary goals, and define the strategic relevance of the success of the current project to the company's mission and vision. Keep the list short and simple to digest.
- Share departmental and company-wide KPIs that serve business goals. Focus each department's and individual's attention on critical metrics that depend upon their team's performance.
- Recognize individuals when they positively impact KPIs. To resolve insufficiencies of accomplishments to meet goals, reevaluate, and either realign expectations, or reassign roles.
- Give feedback to, and obtain it from employees at every level, for use to encourage new ideas, clear obstacles and adjust expectations, while there's time to make necessary changes.
- Promote innovation and agility of the company's team and processes, by offering at least as much encouragement and expression of appreciation as constructive criticism.
- Encourage blame-free risk-taking, to cultivate a creative and collaborative atmosphere. Build confidence, and alleviate fear of punishment that tends to discourage ideas and accepting responsibility for outcomes.
- Raise team consciousness of the importance of personal accountability for the sake of sustainability of the team and its individual members. Discuss ways respect requires courage.
- Periodically, have team members each create, or find and post a short quote or comment about the personal, team, or company benefits of accepting accountability for errors, issues, etc..
- Obtain commitment from all team members to hold each other responsible. Help them understand that giving peers opportunities to change honors them and helps them succeed.
- Discuss with your team the challenge of accepting full accountability and the rewards of trust gained and the reputation for integrity earned by admitting responsibility for errors or failure.
- Practice putting accountability into action with kindness. Acknowledge how difficult accepting accountability is. Then, role play facing others with hard truths, but kindly, without harshness.
- Help develop accountability skills, by role playing admitting fault for errors or failures of processes for which individuals are actually responsible, and discuss ways to avoid repeats.
Suggested Additional Resources
- Hickman, C, Connors, R, and Smith, T (1994) The Oz Principle, Prentice Hall, ISBN 9781591843481.
- Bregman, P (2016, January 11) The Right Way to Hold People Accountable, The Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-right-way-to-hold-people-accountable.
- White, D and P (2017, August 8) Build a Culture of Accountability in 5 Steps, Entrepreneur. Retrieved from: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/298342.
- Brenner, L (Retrieved 2019, January 26) What it Means to be Responsible and Accountable in the Workplace, The Nest. Retrieved from: https://woman.thenest.com/means-responsible-accountable-workplace-11051.html.
- Connors, R, Smith, T (2016) Fix It, Getting Accountability Right, Penguin Group. ISBN: 9781591847878 (hardcover), ISBN 9780698194359 (ebook).
- Hanson, T, Zacher Hanson, B (2005) Who Will Do What by When? Power Publications, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0972419444, ISBN-10: 0972419446.
Suggested Internet Search Terms
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