Do any of these phrases sound familiar?
There’s just no accountability around here.
We have a problem with accountability.
How do I hold people accountable!?
They sound familiar to me not only because I hear about it frequently from my clients but I’ve said them myself.
The thing about accountability is that it is very easy to name, but it is much harder to define. What exactly are people referring to when they say, “there’s just no accountability"?
Often, folks refer to accountability within the context of holding someone responsible for something they didn’t do or an expectation that wasn’t met. In reality, it’s just another word for blame.
Think of it this way, have you ever been in a meeting where a colleague was sharing a success or talking about work that was going well and someone said, “Who do we hold responsible for this?” Probably not.
We seek to “hold people responsible” when something goes wrong. The focus is on others and what others aren’t doing. That’s the first misstep of trying to build an accountability culture.
Instead, an accountability culture is fostered by inspiring people to accept responsibility, instead of holding them to it. Here’s how.
Accept a Common Definition
Having a common definition is the first step toward fostering an accountability culture. No one can really be accountable unless they know exactly what it means. The definition I like and use frequently describes accountability like this:
We accept responsibility for our work, in good times and in bad (personally and for the team). We meet deadlines, follow-through on commitments, and speak up if a commitment can’t be fulfilled. We disclose and discuss our work transparently.
Notice the shared ownership that is conveyed in this definition. People are more likely to be accountable if they know what it looks like to take responsibility for their work. The behaviors are clear such as to meet deadlines, follow-through, and speak-up.
Develop Psychological Safety
Being transparent about work, whether you’ve met a deliverable or not, requires psychological safety. This is an environment where it’s safe to take interpersonal risks, meaning you can admit mistakes, be uncertain, challenge ideas, and disagree without fear of punishment. This kind of environment not only yields the best teamwork results, but it creates a satisfying and engaging workplace. If you are new to hearing about psychological safety, read The One Thing Your Team Needs to Perform Best
The opposite of a psychologically safe work environment is one where people are blamed for work that goes undone or not as expected. It’s one where you hear senior leaders say “they need to be held responsible for this” when referencing a mistake or unintentional consequences of someone’s actions. And that’s another important point, most of the time, mistakes are unintended. People do not set out to screw up on the regular but when leaders first go toward blame, they make it unsafe to admit a mistake in the future. This causes people to ultimately avoid responsibility.
So, if you want to foster an accountability culture, focus on building psychological safety.
Bosses Model Accountable Behavior
The simplest way to build psychological safety as it relates to accountability is for the boss to model it. The manager shows what it looks like to accept responsibility, meet deadlines, follow-through, and more importantly what to do and how to behave when they don’t meet a deliverable. This means the manager talks about their own work transparently and even shares stories about having made mistakes. This is to discuss work transparently. Better yet, the manager describes what they learned and how it helped them continue to grow in their work.
Managers who demonstrate humility send a message that perfection is not an expectation. Instead, taking responsibility for actions that sometimes don’t go as planned is not only ok, but is a situation that everyone on the team can learn from.
Accountability cultures are ones where bosses model the words and behaviors that demonstrate taking responsibility for their work.
Teams Co-Create Expectations
An accountability culture can’t exist without clear expectations but imposing too many can backfire and make people feel micromanaged. A balance can be found by co-creating expectations that are related to teamwork, or how the team works together to meet goals. This builds buy-in and generates more opportunities for folks to accept and take responsibility for their work.
Co-creating expectations that are specific and timebound is a good place to start. No task or activity should be assigned or accepted without a clear definition of the intended outcome and a deadline. In team meetings, members can recap their actions by clarifying what they will deliver and by when.
Other expectations for teamwork that can be co-created include those related to problem-solving (i.e. when to escalate a problem, who is responsible for solving, and how the solution is documented and communicated) as well as expectations related to team communication like when to use email, text, and instant messaging.
Fostering an accountability culture on your team can take some time but it begins with everyone operating under the same definition and contributing to a psychologically safe environment. When bosses model the right behaviors and co-create expectations with the team, it makes it easier for others to do the same.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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