Thursday, May 6, 2010

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 Everybody╩╣s job.
Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn╩╣t 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.


Kavita said...

Leaders need to hold employees accountable. The organizational hierarchy needs to be inverted and employees need to be pushed into the value zone. This move will help create an environment for change. Apart from holding employees accountable, leaders also need to build trust by encouraging transparency in communication and information sharing. These tenets have been successfully implemented at HCL Technologies by their CEO, Vineet Nayar. He has discussed these concepts in his book ‘Employees first, customers second’.

Dan Cooper said...

Was heading #3 supposed to be as is? Or maybe "Inspect what you expect"?

Valuable topic, nice choice of four main steps.

davidburkus said...

Great timing on this post. I just finished re-reading John Miller's QBQ. Required reading for leaders.

Dan McCarthy said...

Kavita -
Thanks for the reccommendation!

Dan -
yes, it was a typio - now fixed. thanks!

David -
Thanks, and another book for the leadership reading list.

Landon Creasy said...

Great post! After all, you can't expect people to be responsible if you're not. The way I was brought up, accountability was often referred to as the "credibility bank" - easy to put bones into the account by being truthful, owning mistakes etc. Devastating to make withdrawals from however. No one will remember anything but the withdrawal you made - regardless of your deposits!

Landon Creasy


Nice post...

setting the rule and expectations from the start is the key. A job should be awarded to a person who can do it best of his skills. So as to avoid the confusion and delay later..

Chris Young said...

Great post Dan! You really hit the head when you noted that accountability starts with looking in the mirror. If we cannot hold ourselvers accountable, there is little to no chance in effectively holding others accountable for any extended period of time.

Thanks for reminding us of this important, but often overlooked element of effective management!

I've included your post in my Rainmaker top five blog picks of the week (found here: to help my readers be more effective in holding themselves and others accountable.

Be well Dan!

Dan McCarthy said...

Landon -
Thanks, that's a good way to approach it.

Anshul -
right, thanks.

Chris -
Thanks, that's awesome!

Maren Showkeir said...

I find much to like in this post, and I appreciate finding it through Chris Young's recommendation. Having undertaken the topic of accountability for a Master's Project, I'm always interested in hearing people's take on accountability.
However, I wonder how many people have really examined the underlying assumptions of the phrase "holding others accountable."

How can one person ever hold another accountable without their consent? Accountability is a choice individuals make, isn't it?

In my experience, what that term implies is "do what you've been told or suffer the consequences." It doesn't seem like a statement that encourages true accountability, and it belies the fact that people always have a choice between being accountable and suffering the consequences.

People at work are adults who show up wanting to make a contribution, and yet organizational systems have been designed to send a message that they won't be accountable unless they are "held accountable." The assumption, again, that they won't do good work without consequences attached, and with someone coming behind them to "make sure" the work is done correctly. This creates a parent/child dynamic that, paradoxically, does the opposite of what is intended. It makes people less accountable because they get the message they aren't trusted to make good decisions to serve the business. I suspect that such thinking has a serious cost to the business in the long run.

In the research I have been doing, accountability is far more likely to be chosen when people are engaged in mutual setting of vision, expectations and goals, and through conversations about how individuals will choose to hold themselves accountable for the good of the whole, and how others in the workforce can support each other to accomplish organizational goals.

I wrote about this in a little more depth here:

Dan McCarthy said...

Maren -
I like your perspective on holding others accountable. I like to think of it as "teaching someone to be accountable".

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Hey, thanks for selecting my post. Your blog is the one of the best!