Accountability is often a challenging topic. For many, it can be an uncomfortable part of leadership and management, as many perceive it as conflict. They see it as a conflict because most often if accountability needs to be practiced, it means holding someone responsible for agreements and obligations. When holding someone accountable, this typically indicates that there is an issue. When said issue is mentioned it can feel confrontational and personal, making someone bad or wrong. Therefore, it may be met with pushback. Those being held accountable can often feel frustrated and wave the micromanagement flag; riding someone too closely and not giving them the freedom and space to do their work, being impatient and demanding. Another response could be to wave a conflict flag, wherein you are asking for something promised but trigger guilt, shame, excuses, deflection, etc.
Without the teamwork of accountability, one may experience gaps, delays, dropped balls, unfinished tasks, and inaccurate deliverables. Many leaders feel frustrated by this, wanting to trust their team to just do their jobs so that the task of accountability would be unnecessary. It seems so simple. If people would just do what they said they would, accountability would not be needed, right?
Wrong. Accountability is more than its inaccurate reputation of nagging, distrusting, micromanaging, and harassing people. Accountability is about excellence, communication, synergy, teamwork, and momentum. Because we often avoid accountability, it is most used after there has been frustration and gross gap. After an avoidance of accountability and a project breakdown, it requires that dreaded, command-control person showing up on the accountability soapbox demanding action, making accountability feel like a punitive whip. A team in this space who does not work within design accountability will often continue to act as they did; good intentions, hard work, unfortunate ambiguity, cryptic deadlines, and undefined deliverables setting the stage for another trainwreck.
Accountability is not the problem or the bad word. It is our human nature that likes to have a scapegoat or margin for failure and the unexpected. Many humans buckle under accountability because it can be uncomfortable. When a culture has not practiced accountability it can especially feel micromanaging. Once people see and feel the positive impact of following through on commitments and understand how it builds trust, accountability can become a positive skill and habit.
When accountability is designed well it can afford the team and individuals greater levels of success. This requires commitment, clarity, and agreements. Human nature often prefers to operate in ambiguity, squishiness, and generalities. For people to be fully responsible and independent in their work, they need to have awareness, ability, natural motivation, clarity of responsibilities, and understand the big picture/why. When this is set up well, it is possible for projects and people to thrive. Think about it for a moment. Think of the last project you worked on that had clear deliverables, designed checkpoints, and built-in accountability. How did that project go in contrast to the one that didn’t? Sometimes those with clear plans go so much better, we minimize why they went better as that project was small, easier, or simpler to get done. The reality is that accountability is just a part of the planning process and if you are serious about finishing a project well and in excellent fashion, accountability is part of the plan.
Here are some tips:
- DEFINE. Define and agree on what the target or success looks like. This is important because different people may have different definitions of ‘finished’ or ‘success’.
- DESIGN. Outline WHO (one person, NEVER two or more people), will do WHAT tasks by WHEN (date) and HOW the team will know (accountability). Accountability is the responsibility of the holder of the task if it is designed well. The person holding the task has an agreement about how they will let the team know. The design is the bigger picture that happens on the team level so everyone knows who is doing what and has an overview of the lineup. For example; John is responsible to contact and update pricing for 25 clients by the last day of this month. He will let the team know by emailing a list of who opted for the updated pricing and who canceled. Consider the design FRAMEWORK for the task and project.
- LEAD. In the design, it should be clear who the leader is that the task holder (i.e. John reports to the head of the project or his boss). That is the person who then needs to hold the tasked person accountable along the way using checkpoints. Leadership is very important because it is a critical step to sync 1-1 with the task. Because communication can get jumbled, humans forget things, can struggle with getting started and other challenges that get in our way, it is healthy to sync understanding of the task assignment and design checkpoints. It is honestly a set-up for most significant tasks to have no checkpoint before the deadline. Also, for a leader to assume the team conversation was enough is short-sighted and often results in confusion, miscommunication, and misunderstanding to surface a month or so later at the next team meeting (with no action done on the task). The 1-1 conversation is filling in the picture; it might be seen as the SIDING for the task and project.
- SET CHECKPOINTS. Designed check-in points are another part of accountability. Checkpoints are usually smaller conversations between the leader and task runner that might help to outline a smaller breakdown of the task but is too detailed at a team level. While a leader needs to give the team members the freedom to design how they want to accomplish the task, it is reasonable to talk about their understanding of the task, their plan, what it looks like, and ensure they are on the same page. As humans, we have all tasks we dislike doing, want to avoid, or procrastinate on. It is these types of tasks that most need to be co-designed to ensure everyone is headed in the same direction. This might be at John’s weekly 1-1. John comes to the 1-1 with his list of tasks and reports where he is. Often these tasks are not even on peoples’ list and leaders feel like they have to remember everyone else’s tasks in addition to their own. This is why an organized company has a way to track tasks, design, and checkpoints, so the tasked person would have it on their radar to check-in and if they forget it is easy for the leader to check in on it. Checkpoints are like the NAILS in the siding, held to the framing.
- TRACK IT. Having a TASK TRACKER of some kind is critical. This might be an app like Asana, an Excel list with the project and who/what/when/how listed, etc. The leader has this tracker and should be able to look at it and after John gives his report or update, if he fails to mention the price increase project, the leader would ask “How is the price increase project coming?” This simply allows for a task to stay on the radar and a conversation to be had if there is an obstacle in the way of action.
- HAVE HEALTHY CONVERSATIONS. Discussing the status is important. Some will get frustrated with too many questions, but 9 times out of 10, if there is frustration it is because there has been nothing done and the person is stalling, struggling, or trying to figure it out. When people are off and running they typically volunteer the next level of information or have a question to move it forward, not subconsciously try to shut down or deflect the conversation. Ideally, John would respond, “oh thanks! yes, I have called 10 of the customers and all are renewing!” That would be great, but we know tasks don’t go like that. If that report is truly great, but usually it sounds more like, “Oh ya. I haven’t gotten to that yet” followed by an excuse. This is the point of meltdown and when accountability matters. We all have things that overwhelm us or get us stuck. Having a planned check-in point, it is allowing the leader to check in on an agreed and reasonable timeframe that some activity should have happened versus no designed check-in, and the next day the leader is asking about it. This is micromanaging and harassing versus at the weekly one to one. If the agreement is that at least 5 calls a week, it should be done and none are done, it is an early indicator we are off track. Sometimes team members and leadership will fall into the trap of asking the question but “fine” is the simple answer and to avoid the discomfort they move on. This is a problem. The conversation about HOW the project is going needs to happen, as this is where excellence and challenges are caught and addressed early on.
For example, John might say “Well, I have emailed everyone, but not heard back.”
Leader: “Wait, I thought we agreed you were going to call them?”
John: “Yeah, I just thought emailing would give them the new contract so I just emailed them.”
Leader: “Oh, ok – Well that is great; they have the info, but how do we know they got and reviewed the info? In the team, we agreed phone calls are needed and I feel they are still important. Now that you have emailed them, would you do follow-up calls on those that you emailed to review what is in the email and understand what they would like to do? How many calls do you think you can do before our next 1-1?”
Set the agreement and then the next 1-1 is the next checkpoint.
Accountability is an amazing dialogue and structure to ensure things move along smoothly. It creates continuity and flow. It allows glitches to be caught early and corrected or realigned before it is a “problem” or “mistake”. It provides synergy as a project is able to move 5-10 task arrows in the direction of the big arrow so that things are accomplished simultaneously vs. task by task, which is inefficient and grossly extends the time it takes to do things, often making a project late or unable to be finished in a reasonable time. Accountability is designed for communication and syncing to ensure things are on track. The lack of accountability is the fear of simple check-ins and conversations resulting in the accidental breakdown and misalignment.
Read also the Forbes article.