Where the Rubber Meets the Road: 5 Ways to Build Accountability

By Jessica Wishart

dateTue, May 10, 2016 @ 09:00 AM

According to a study by VitalSmarts, a whopping 93% of people report having at least one Accountability-5-ways-to-build.jpgcoworker who doesn’t pull his or her own weight. While we’ve all heard the stats on low employee engagement, this survey points to an accountability crisis.

What is accountability, anyway? In her Breakthrough Conference breakout session, Cathy McCullough defined accountability as “individually taking personal ownership for identified priorities and owning the process to accomplish those priorities, while also openly sharing the progress and end results for those priorities.” The keyword here that distinguishes accountability from responsibility is “ownership.” As Patrick said in a previous blog post, “he who cares more is the one that is truly accountable.” If you are the one who feels the pain from the consequences of something not getting done, you are the one who owns those results, and you are the one who is accountable.

It can be tempting to view accountability from a negative light - “holding someone accountable” frequently carries the connotation of punishment and conjures up an image of getting your wrist slapped - or worse. Considering the association many of us have between accountability, blame, mistrust and shame, it’s no wonder that only 10% of the people VitalSmarts surveyed actually spoke up about underperforming colleagues. This perception of accountability as a weapon doesn’t serve anyone well.

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out in her Harvard Business Review article, accountability can be viewed as a tool to help raise the bar on everyone’s performance. She points out that "high-performing organizations use information to help people improve, by giving people abundant, timely, and helpful data about their performance on a regular basis, individually and as a group.” She shares some tips for building accountability.

How to Build Accountability:

  1. Culture is key. According to Kanter, "The tools of accountability — data, details, metrics, measurement, analyses, charts, tests, assessments, performance evaluations — are neutral. What matters is their interpretation, the manner of their use, and the culture that surrounds them.” In order to build accountability, you have to foster a culture where the team can discuss results and accountability without fear of retribution, shame, or being scapegoated.
  2. Establish safety. The only way to have accountability discussions is to first make it safe; Kanter calls it creating “humiliation-free zones.” Remind the other person about your mutual goals of solving problems rather than making accusations or criticizing anyone. At VitalSmarts, they recommend letting the other person know you respect him as another way to build safety.
  3. Be curious; ask questions. To avoid a defensive reaction from the other person, it’s best to frame the conversation by asking questions. Kanter says, “Questions help people deconstruct the details of performance and consider alternatives.” Approaching the conversation in this way can help you shift your mindset from one of blame or judgment to one of inquiry and a desire to help. In a blog on personal accountability, Cathy provides a detailed list of questions you might ask in an accountability conversation. 
  4. Talk about the details. Don’t use sweeping generalizations in an accountability discussion. The goal is to help the other person improve, and to that end, it is easier to identify opportunities for improvement when you consider the specific actions that resulted in success or failure; Kanter points out that this also makes it “easier to find strengths as well as weaknesses.” VitalSmarts recommends sharing the facts as you observed them and then sharing the gap between what happened and what you expected.
  5. It starts with you. Kanter shares the importance of leaders modeling accountability for others. “Name problems that everyone knows are there, put performance data on the table for everyone to see, and refuse to shift responsibility to some nameless 'them.'” Demonstrate the behavior you expect to see in those you lead.

Following these tips should help you build accountability in your organization - real accountability that helps your team lift each other up and raise the performance bar for everyone, not the wrist-slapping, morale-killing kind that has inspired fear in the hearts of many who love to avoid accountability discussions at all costs!

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Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images