How accountable are the people in your organization? 

This is a question that reveals a great deal of frustration amongst many of the CEOs and business owners I’ve spoken with over the last year or so.  So many leaders are struggling with how to create a culture of accountability that one would think that there are hordes of unaccountable zombie workers running amok in today’s workplaces.


First, let’s be clear about what accountability is NOT:

You must do _____________ or else you will suffer _____________ as a consequence.


Because many people have come to equate consequences with accountability, they believe that accountability is a simple equation of instructing people what they must do and the consequences they’ll suffer if they do not comply.  In fact, they see consequences as the sole basis for accountability.  This is a misinformed and entirely counterproductive view of accountability.

This view is shaped by ineffective leaders who believe that one must be aggressive and put the fear of God in everyone’s heart.  These folks misguidedly rely on fear to get results.  They do not realize that being overbearing, demanding, and full of blame causes your team—the people you count on to move your company forward—to shut down and become defensive rather than focused and effective.

When people fail to meet our expectations, it is usually because:

  • We had unrealistic or unclear expectations
  • We never really communicated our expectations
  • We failed to get the employee’s buy-in
  • We were not clear on when the result was due
  • We didn’t adequately convey the priority of the task
  • We weren’t clear on what good looks like – there weren’t any tests for success
  • We’ve created an environment where poor practices often result in people becoming distracted or overwhelmed

From this list, it becomes pretty clear that a lack of accountability is less of an employee problem and more of a leadership gap.  But, what is accountability and how do we create an accountable organization?

Let’s start with a useful definition of accountability:

Demonstrating the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.

As business owners and CEOs, you already know the feeling of ownership and the deep responsibility that comes with it.  The challenge, then, is how to foster that same sense of ownership amongst employees.  There are four broad steps for building an accountable organization:

  1. Agree on Expectations
  2. Establish a Measurement and Feedback Loop
  3. Support Independent Action
  4. Follow-up

1. Agree on Expectations.  The importance of clear expectations cannot be overstated.  Identify at the outset the desired results, the date by which the results must be obtained, and the resources that will be required to achieve those results.   Be sure to answer the questions of who will do what, by when and with whom/what.  It is also important to highlight specific actions or methods if they are part of your expectations.

Agreement is key.  By allowing room for input from your team, you are dramatically increasing their sense of ownership of the outcomes.  Two-way communication also leads to greater clarity of expectations.  Be absolutely certain that your people understand every facet of what’s expected and take full ownership from the outset.  If there are key decisions that you are not ready to delegate, allow the team the opportunity to suggest their approach while you make the ultimate decision.

Put expectations in writing!

2. Establish a Measurement and Feedback Loop.  Once everyone understands the expectations, it is important to agree on how progress and/or results will be measured.  Aside from establishing a common language and yardstick, the process of deciding on appropriate measurements often results in improvements to the clarity of the original expectations.

Also, agree on the frequency of feedback and the manner in which it will take place.  For example, a year-long project may only require monthly reports while it may be necessary to have weekly meetings in other situations. 

3. Support Independent Action.  After you’ve thoroughly followed steps 1 and 2, it is time for you to step back and let your team work.  Resist the urge to micromanage—it always does more harm than good.  Every time you step in with helpful guidance on how things should be done, you destroy any sense of ownership and, as much as you would love to blame others, are responsible for any failure to meet expectations.  In short, micromanagement destroys accountability.

Whenever you can afford to allow the team to make mistakes and learn from them, do so.  If the mistake is one that you simply can’t afford, be sure to explain it fully and get input from your people on how they’ll meet expectations while avoiding costly mistakes.  You’ll  be surprised by their growing sense of ownership!

4. Follow Up.  Once the measurements and feedback loop have been laid out, it is imperative that they be carried out with regularity.  Set the example by being accountable for effective follow up.  This is the real secret to building an accountable organization.  Leaders who consistently share their accountabilities with their organization and then rigorously follow through on them will set the tone for true accountability.  Engaging in these regular follow up discussions is a way to make oft-needed course corrections and to provide coaching and guidance for further development.  Highlight accomplishments and give meaningful praise for progress and results.

Is there a place for consequences in this equation?  Of course.  You’ll be heaping loads of positive consequences on your people as they routinely meet or exceed expectations.  Truly effective leaders will find that they rarely have to resort to any sort of negative consequences once they have mastered the 4-step approach. Attain true accountability now.




06-04-2014 13:06:21