Are You Defining “Accountability” Correctly?

POSTED: Jan. 18, 2017

Program ParticipantsSay the phrase, “We need to hold people more accountable” to your team and most of them will likely have a negative reaction. Why? Because for many, the connotation of the word “accountability” was created by an unpleasant experience involving blame, coercion, criticism and more work. What we say we mean versus what they perceive is often contradictory.

So what is accountability then? Simply put, it is action. Supposing someone walks out of the break room and spills coffee without realizing it. The first person to happen upon the spill needs to take action to clear the problem either by cleaning it up themselves or by putting a yellow cone over the spill and calling the person with the proper equipment to do the job. That person was affected by the problem and therefore needs to have impact on the solution. This is accountability.

Unfortunately, it is human nature that some people would instead complain about the spiller’s carelessness and leave the problem for the next person to discover. This lack of accountability is often created by the belief that only the person who caused the problem should be responsible for fixing it. It is essential to reinforce the concept that accountability means: if you are affected by a problem, you must have impact on the solution. “But,” you might say, “I am not the person in charge and cannot make a final decision about a perfect solution.” So what? By being a person affected by the problem you are in the perfect position to recommend a solution and influence the decisions made about solving the problem. Your perspective is invaluable to really fixing the problem.

While this definition seems simple in description, it is not always simple for people to embrace in implementation. Symbolic messages often contradict these expectations. For example, supposing “Jane” saw a problem and was affected by it, took steps to solve the situation and then had an entire department mad at her for “overstepping boundaries and getting involved in someone else’s business.” Perhaps she was even accused of “trying to make the other department look bad.” After this type of defensive reaction from the people she was trying to help, why would Jane be willing to impact solutions for these people ever again? As a manager, would you be willing to take the time necessary to mediate this conflict? And would you be able to do this in a way that didn’t create the perception that Jane is now “teacher’s pet?” Office politics can create the perception that accountability means doing what the manager wants in order to gain favor with that manager, not doing what is right for the benefit of everyone.

Another symbolic message that interferes with implementing accountability is the issue of blame. The focus should be on what went wrong and how we fix it, not on who did something wrong. Saying this is not enough. For example, think of the last time you attended a problem-solving meeting. What percentage of the time was spent analyzing who caused the problem versus what percentage of the time was spent on brainstorming solutions and planning an actual course of action? If the meeting was all about the problem, then symbolically people see accountability as blame just because of the amount of time you didn’t spend discussing action. Also consider this: if you are a supervisor, do you spend most of your time with direct reports correcting mistakes or giving praise for a job well done? If the majority of interaction is focused on correction, then accountability means blame and criticism to your team.

It is also critical to acknowledge that accountability isn’t just about getting the job done. We are also accountable for the impact we have on other people. Often we say that people are our greatest asset, yet there are far too many examples of inappropriate impact on others being ignored. How many times in your career have you seen someone rewarded for meeting his goals without anyone noticing how many people he bullied into making that happen? It is critical that managers take as much time talking about soft skills competencies in the performance review as they do discussing goal achievement. Obviously it is much easier to talk about productivity, quality and attendance because there are numbers to support the evaluation, but the team’s success is dependent upon everyone acting accountably toward one another in both productivity and interpersonal behavior.

Perhaps the most important situation to consider in defining accountability is how you encourage change. Change makers are often so enthusiastic about their plan for change that they fail to realize the amount of time they took in researching ideas, discussing best approaches and deciding the best means of implementing the change. This process allowed the change-maker’s time to become comfortable with the new initiative. What often happens next, however, is that the new initiative is announced with enthusiasm – which is great. But then people are told they are now accountable for implementing this change without providing a similar getting-used-to-the-idea timeframe. Accountability for change then appears to mean being coerced into more responsibility and more work. Instead, leaders must be accountable for influencing buy-in; including time scheduled for the change-implementers to offer suggestions for fine-tuning the implementation process. This creates accountability for the success of the new initiative.

So, if you are trying to coach someone to be more accountable, it is important to consider your work environment and the symbolic messages that define accountability. No conversation takes place in a vacuum. Your words may be overpowered by the actions people see on a daily basis. And once you have analyzed the environment, then analyze your own symbolic messages as a coach. How effectively are you encouraging risk-taking for example? Aversion to risk leads to lack of action, which results in a lack of accountability. How conscious are you of your word choice during a coaching conversation? Are you keeping the focus of the conversation on the incorrect action the person chose or are your words describing the person as being wrong?

Meaning is created in the mind of the receiver of the message. Defining accountability requires much more thought than simply putting a poster in the break room that states: “Accountability = action.” We must create definitions of accountability throughout our work environment if we are going to be successful in coaching individual accountability. Take action today toward this goal. That is everyone’s accountability.