Can You Really Hold Others Accountable?

This past Tuesday, I was on a conference call with Mindy, an HR Director for a financial services company.  I asked her what her company’s biggest leadership issues are.  Mindy said, “Our leaders don’t hold their people accountable.”

Mindy’s company is not alone. Accountability is an issue for many organizations.

According to a survey conducted by AMA Enterprise, a division of the American Management Association, business leaders recognize a lack of accountability on the part of employees:

  • 11% of survey respondents said more than 50% of their employees shirk responsibility.
  • 21% of business leaders believed the percentage of unaccountable employees ranged from 30% to 50%.
  • More than one out of five company managers put the number of employees who avoid taking responsibility at 20% to 30%.
  • One-quarter of business managers believe that 10% to 20% of their staff avoid accountability.

But can you actually “hold” others accountable?  Here again lies another challenge: according to a Workplace Accountability Study, 82 percent of respondents admit they have limited-to-no ability to hold others accountable successfully.

Yet, at the same time, there’s consensus that having an organization where people are accountable is vital for success. After all, if people don’t follow through on commitments, effectiveness grinds to a halt.  This is why 91 percent of respondents indicated they would rank “improving the ability to hold others accountable in an effective way” as one of the top leadership development needs in their organization.

So, if we have limited ability to hold others accountable, but know it’s essential for success, what’s the best strategy for a leader to take?

It might be useful to first look at the origins of the word itself.  Accountability comes from accounting.   

A basic tool of accounting is the Balance Sheet.  The Balance Sheet has two sides:  assets and liabilities.

When the two sides balance, the sheet is in account:  it’s accountable.

To take this from the world of accounting into the world of leadership, just replace the column “liabilities” with “what I promise to do” and assets with “what I actually did”.

If What You Do = What You Promise To Do, you’re accountable.

If the two sides don’t add up, you’re not.  End of story.

So why does this get so confusing at work?

It’s because the intentions —  the agreements in advance as to “what I promise to do” – are not explicitly made nor agreed upon.  Without overt and specific communication, the process gets slippery.  When things don’t get done, people are afraid to take full ownership.  Instead, fingers are pointed.  Blame is shifted. Excuses are made.  Language moves from active voice “I made a mistake” to passive voice “Mistakes were made.”

As a leader, you shouldn’t think of “holding people accountable” as a thing you do. It’s not an event.  It’s a process.  To create a culture of genuine accountability, you need to help set agreements upfront, check in frequently, remind others of their  agreements throughout and at the end of the process.   It’s also great to celebrate success at the end, and/or do an after action-review to see what lessons can be learned.

Doing this creates a higher performing and more sustainable organization.

What other successful strategies have you used to help improve accountability?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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