“No one told me you needed that.”
“It’s not my fault I’m behind schedule. The other group missed their deadline.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me when this was due?”
Excuses like these are all telltale signs that an organization lacks a culture that emphasizes how to manage accountability. When team members don’t take responsibility for their own actions and leadership doesn’t consistently hold them accountable, it’s nearly impossible for a team to execute its strategy effectively. Without accountability, teams have difficulty building and maintaining the trust necessary for productive collaboration. This is especially challenging for virtual teams, which already face hurdles to forming strong relationships.
The best strategy for managing accountability is to establish a culture that emphasizes accountability before things go wrong. Accountability isn’t about assigning blame after problems develop; it provides a way for people to clarify what needs to be done and follow through on their commitments.
How to Establish a Foundation for Accountability
The most important step in building a climate of accountability is establishing what expectations employees will be held to. In order for people to take responsibility for tasks, they first need to have a very clear idea of what they’re supposed to be accomplishing. Regardless of the industry in question, if goals are ambiguous or not well defined, it can be difficult for anyone to know how their individual efforts contribute to those outcomes. Communication is very important in this regard, not only at the onset of a project, but throughout its entire course.
Expectations also define what success looks like. If someone is being tasked with producing a specific deliverable, they need to know what that deliverable should look like if they’re going to be held accountable for it. Too much ambiguity leaves room for interpretation, which could result in two very different ideas of what constitutes an acceptable outcome. Without this foundation, there’s no basis for holding anyone accountable for results.
When expectations are established and goals clearly defined, it’s important to agree upon a timeline for monitoring and measuring progress. Here again, it’s important to eliminate ambiguity. Simply stating that a project must be completed “as soon as possible” or a deliverable produced “by next week” leave a lot of room for interpretation. Without a specific timeframe, people are more likely to prioritize tasks according to their own preferences, which can create significant problems if someone can’t begin or complete a task before someone else completes theirs.
Timetables also help to create accountability by measuring how much progress has been made toward a goal. If it becomes clear that someone on a team is lagging behind or consistently creating problems for others, team leaders can address the issue before it puts the project in jeopardy. When the entire team is struggling to meet key milestones, it may be an indication that the original timing and targets were too ambitious and need to be adjusted. Without a timetable, however, teams can wind up operating in the dark, unsure of where potential problems exist until the deadline arrives. By that time, it’s too late to make adjustments.
Having clear expectations and a timetable is one thing; knowing whether or not people are keeping to them is quite another. Accountability is a process, not an event. Leaders need to check in with team members periodically, providing guidance and feedback where necessary. To avoid making anyone feel like they’re being micromanaged, it’s best to mutually agree upon specific check-in times. Rather than framing these meetings as a safeguard to ensure work is getting done, it can be seen as a positive interaction in which team members have a chance to show their progress and seek assistance if they need it.
Communication is important in this process. If there are problems, they should be dealt with promptly rather than ignored. Frequent check-ins can also help cut through assumptions that can lead to greater problems down the road. If someone is operating on the assumption that another team member is doing something when they’re not, a quick check-in will clarify everyone’s present status.
Accountability After the Fact
It’s simply not realistic to expect every project to come off without a hitch. Sooner or later, something goes wrong in every organization or team. Their ability to take accountability for mistakes has a major impact on whether or not those same problems will affect future projects.
When things do go wrong, everyone involved needs to ask themselves three questions:
- What, if anything, did I do that might have contributed to the problem?
- What can be done to get things back on track?
- What can I do to prevent this problem from happening again in the future?
Rather than putting the blame on any one person or group these questions encourage everyone on the team to think about positive steps they can take to resolve existing problems. It establishes the idea that accountability isn’t about assigning blame, but rather identifying opportunities and potential for improvement.
Managing accountability in others is an important skill for leaders looking to execute strategy effectively. While team members must ultimately learn to take accountability for their actions, good leaders find ways to facilitate that process and encourage people to take ownership and responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions. By taking steps to create a culture focused on accountability, they can set their teams on the path to consistent success.
HRDQ-U and Rick Lepsinger hosted a free webinar you can watch here!