How to be Accountable and Hold Others Accountable

This is a story of four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it.
Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybodyʹs job.
Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldnʹt do it.
It ended that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

– Unknown

Does this sound familiar? What kind of workplace situations does this remind you of?

The topic of accountability has been such a hot topic for the last decade, it’s almost turned into just another corporate buzzword. However, for some reason, the word still seems to be a lightning rod when it comes to leadership development.

It’s a word with a lot of arms and legs. It’s often used to describe:

– a personal value (someone who is accountable)

– something you do to others (hold them accountable)

– and something that an organizational entity should be or isn’t (e.g., there’s no accountability in government).

For leaders, accountability starts with looking in the mirror. Being accountable is our ticket to earning the right to hold others accountable.

When someone else screws up, we tend to blame it on their personal characteristics. However, when we screw up, we tend to blame it on external circumstances. It’s a cognitive bias social psychologists call “fundamental attribution”. Neither serve us or others well as leaders.

What does it mean to be accountable as a leader? Let’s just say I know it when I hear it. It sounds something like this:

– “I made a mistake”
– “I screwed up”
– “That’s on me, and no one else”
– “No excuses
– “I’ll do it – it’s mine”
– “I got it”
– “I’m already on it, it’ll get taken care of”
– “I’ll make sure everyone gets regular status reports”

I also know what it doesn’t sound like… it doesn’t sound like:

– Whining
– Finger pointing
– Blaming
– “I’ll try”, “maybe”, “I’ll do my best”
– Excuses, excuses, and more excuses
– A victim
– Insincere, rehearsed, b.s. apologies 

Leaders can start creating a culture of accountability by being accountable. However, being a role model isn’t always enough to help someone else be accountable. As leaders, we often need to hold others accountable. In order to do this, we need to:

1. Establish expectations
Without expectations, managers and employees both end up frustrated and disappointed. It’s important to clearly describe what “good” performance looks like, and what it does not look like.

2. Gain Commitment
Without commitment, we get compliance – or even resistance. Don’t assume you have someone’s commitment just because you’ve discussed it with them. Watch out for those phases like “I’ll try”, or “I’ll do my best”. Ask for and listen to people’s concerns. Help them overcome their obstacles, explain the benefits, and help them figure out what they need to achieve the goal. Ask: “Do I have your commitment?”, and “What needs to happen in order for you to commit to this?”

3. Inspect what you expect
“Inspection” sounds like a dirty word, indicating a lack of trust or micromanaging. It’s really not – following up shows that it’s important, you care, and you’re there to help remove obstacles. Inspecting also provides an opportunity to give praise for progress towards a goal. In time, hopefully, your employees will learn how to proactively provide progress reports. Let’s face it, these days, we all have all kinds of competing priorities. Even with good intentions, it’s easy for things to slip. Inspection and follow-up make sure the really important things don’t fall through the cracks.

4. Provide feedback and consequences.
Feedback lets someone know how they’re doing. If expectations are not being met, then they need to know about it, as well as how to get back on track.
If expectations are being met or exceeded, then they need to hear about that as well.
If performance consistently is below expectations, then there needs to be consequences. Without consequences, there is no accountability.
If you follow this process consistently as a leader, and role model accountable behavior yourself, you’ll create a culture of accountability and “no excuses” within your team or organization.