People & Human Resources

Who cares about accountability?

Eve Ash /

In some organisations accountability is tied in with threats, for some people it has become an almost meaningless buzzword.

It is used so often but implemented so rarely – and everyone suffers because of it. Accountability is more than just ticking off the boxes of your job description; it is about contributing to a culture of trust and reliability, as well as taking appropriate actions when mistakes happen.

Accountability starts with the leaders

Have a look at the leaders in your organisation – do they fulfil their promises and admit their mistakes? Or do they claim the wins and pass the losses onto someone else? The old version of leadership is to never show weakness, never admitting mistakes or even covering them up. Unfortunately, we all make mistakes so they need to be managed and it starts at the top whether it is the leader’s personal mistake or one in the team he/she is responsible for.

A team respects a manager who quickly (not because of continual prodding) admits a mistake, considers the causes of that mistake and then implements processes to prevent it happening again.

Interestingly, this will also make you as a manager more accountable to yourself. By discussing errors and responsibilities out loud to those that are affected by it you reduce the chance of self-deception through ignoring.

Everyone needs to know their job counts

Accountability is also about fulfilling the core requirements of your role properly and predictably. If a manager is ensuring that everyone knows their contribution to the company – and to the customer and other stakeholders – then that person will be more dedicated to fulfilling their role and not letting people down. When people lose sight of the larger picture and the importance of their job then it becomes difficult to maintain a high level of care and application to the task.

Take a customer service staff member who is answering complaint after complaint. They can become disenfranchised over time and stop caring as much about how they treat each individual. If you can show them the importance of their role, how many people they actually help and how that contributes to profitability and process improvement then they will be much more motivated to not only perform their role but to do it with gusto. In effect you have given them an account of the impact they have on the organisation.

Discuss with the team what accountability means

Like most buzzwords, the term accountability has had its meaning blurred a little bit. Accountability means being held to account. Not just having a clear direction with the work you’re doing but also keeping track of whether the work is done or not, to the agreed level of quality, and within the time frame, budget and agreed parameters. Holding someone to account is to make sure they’re doing what they’ve agreed to do. A large part of accountability is knowing what happens if you don’t fulfil your end of the bargain. What are the consequences? Do others have to pick up the pieces?

People need to be accountable day to day, week to week and by project, not just every six months or yearly at a performance appraisal.

If you make accountability a key element of the culture in your team or organisation then you build a strong basis of trust. Trust is important because it means you can charge forward with your own work, knowing that the rest of your team will do what you need them to do. This confidence typically results in a more focused and effective style of work.

Translate into work examples, and share the examples

A huge issue in many team development programs is that abstract terms, such as accountability, aren’t translated into specific actions. Work with your team closely on this because the more they contribute to defining the acceptable and correct behaviours the better the uptake will be. Accountability can be translated into behaviours such as the following:

  • All emails marked urgent need to be responded to within half an hour
  • If a project or task is running over schedule then all team members must be alerted earlier than the due date/time
  • If one of the agreed behaviours isn’t adhered to then someone will take full responsibility for it by admitting the mistake and taking measures to repair the damage
  • When a complaint is received it will be responded to within an hour and managed by one key person and all people involved will be told

All staff should understand the business position

Accountability measures are so much more effective when all staff members are fully aware of the impact they’re having. You can’t motivate people on arbitrary action; it needs to have purpose and meaning. When you continually tie people’s actions to business outcomes then it reinforces the importance of their work and the potential fallout if they aren’t being accountable. When one team member falls below the agreed standards the manager must step in and ensure the situation is changed and that all team members are accountable – or they lose the respect of their team for not fixing the problem.

Accountability can sound somewhat negative, but it shouldn’t be viewed this way. Accountability shouldn’t be the threat of the big stick, but the promise of increased efficiency and confidence that comes with a highly aligned team that are all performing their roles properly. A team that values accountability highly can move from uncertainty into a position of confidence and enthusiasm. It is not just the manager but all team members who enjoy a team of fully accountable individuals.

Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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