“Accountability.” It’s everywhere we turn, in all aspects of our lives. Kids are accountable to their teachers for getting their homework done, and we’re all accountable to our doctors (and our families) to get and stay healthy. In our work lives, we’re accountable to our bosses and co-workers to do our jobs in a way that makes the company money and helps it meet its goals.
At the same time we’re being held accountable, it’s as necessary for our teachers, doctors, co-workers and bosses to be accountable to us. To give us the structure, skills and support we need to complete these tasks successfully.
So what exactly does it mean to be truly accountable, for all involved? We’ve pulled together a quick primer. Here, you’ll learn what it really means and get a chance to think about how/if your leadership is accountable to your employees and vice-versa. We’ll also give you a few ideas for turning things around, if your company isn’t quite there yet.
What exactly is accountability?
Merriam-Webster defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” That’s just the beginning, as the true definition and application goes much deeper and wider.
For there to be an accountable relationship, at least two people must be involved – the one who is accountable for his or her actions and the one to which he or she is accountable. In addition, one of those individuals needs to be liable, meaning that when there is action (or lack of it), there’s an effective reaction from the person or group holding the person responsible.
Basically, this means that the student will be penalized by the teacher with a poor grade or a conversation with their parents if they don’t do their homework, the patient will be subject to a lecture by the doctor if they gain weight and their blood pressure goes up, and the project manager loses money for each day a project is late (or gets a bonus for each day he completes it early).
Why do you need accountability in a business environment?
Accountability is critical in work settings, for so many reasons. First, it addresses both an organization’s expectations of their employees and the employees’ expectations of the organization. It also means that all parties react and respond appropriately, standing behind decisions, actions, and the overall well-being of projects or tasks.
Data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management shows that in addition to higher work performance, accountability leads to improved proficiency and commitment to work, increased employee morale, and greater work satisfaction. Those factors, in turn, can lead to improvement in the employees’ ability to innovate and create, because the employee feels more appreciated and invested in the company’s future. And overall, accountable employees help maintain a positive company culture, vision, and ethics.
Tolerating lateness, missed deadlines, and unfinished work creates an environment where a lack of accountability is acceptable and no big deal. That nonchalance, even for something as simple as being late to a meeting, makes it difficult for a company to meet its business goals. For example: a meeting is supposed to start at 10am. The project manager running the meeting is five minutes late. That delay then becomes a delay for the 10 people in the room waiting. Now, 50 minutes of productivity have been lost, not just the five minutes of the person being late. The meeting leader is accountable to everyone in that room. How often does this happen in your organization? Are you ever that person?
At its core, accountability gives all involved parties peace of mind. Everyone involved understands that they can depend on others to do what they say they’re going to do. Each person is held responsible for the decisions that are made, the actions taken, and the projects and tasks completed.
What does accountability look like in your organization?
According to a 2013 American Management Association study, leaders recognize their employees suffer from a significant lack of accountability. 21 percent of respondents stated that unaccountable employees make up 30 to 50 percent of their workforce. However, in the same survey, almost 50 percent of respondents said that more than 50 percent of their employees fully understand the extent of their responsibilities and how they contribute to the organization’s success. This is an interesting dichotomy. If employees understand how they contribute to the company’s success, why aren’t they more engaged? Where’s the disconnect?
True accountability starts with the companies leaders.
Are your leaders asking themselves how their leadership affects the company’s direction, either positively or negatively? Even the best leaders go through bad times. Truly accountable leaders take full responsibility for overestimating and underestimating their ability to meet deadlines, targets and/or goals.
Are your leaders following through with a message that accountability at all levels is critical? Without a strong example from leadership, the lack of accountability can trickle down, instead of the message that accountability is valued, emphasized and required for success.
Getting to true accountability
It’s not enough to say a company’s leaders and employees are accountable. Leaders must demonstrate the process with their teams, through steps that include:
- Working together to set attainable, reasonable goals and metrics;
- Giving employees the authority to accomplish those goals;
- Coaching and training employees as necessary;
- Providing appropriate resources;
- Supporting employees in all aspects of a job or task;
- Monitoring progress towards goals, and providing feedback; and
- Recognizing employees for good performance.
As a leader, what do you believe you and your team need to do, i.e. where do you need to spend your time, attention, and in some cases, dollars, to build an environment of accountability? You can leave your answers in the comment section below.
An accountable workplace takes effort and a commitment. Talk about it with your team, share ideas and come to an agreement on what accountability means in your workplace, and you’ll have a foundation for everyone to work from.