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Building accountability and commitment

By Richard Lepsinger

Executive summary
Proper accountability includes setting people up for success and having a system to learn from mistakes. Failure to hold people accountable could lead to employees viewing you as an ineffective leader, which could infect the workplace with a culture of blame.

Although it usually is difficult to predict what people will do or say, there is at least one principle of human behavior that many will agree is predictable and consistent. On employee surveys, when people are asked if they and others in their department are held accountable for results, a high percentage of the responses are favorable. However, ask them if people in other departments are being held accountable and the percentage of favorable responses typically is low. In other words, while we believe we take accountability for our actions, we are just as certain that others do not. This is one aspect of human behavior that you can take to the bank.

How big a problem is the lack of accountability in today’s organizations, anyway? Research suggests it’s a fairly substantial one. In a survey of more than 400 senior and midlevel leaders, 40 percent report that employees in their organizations are not being held accountable for results, and 20 percent report that managers in their organizations do not deal with poor performers. It also appears that the presence or absence of accountability in an organization makes a difference – 77 percent of leaders in top-performing organizations report that “employees at all levels are held accountable for results,” compared to only 44 percent in less successful organizations.

Why we should hold people accountable

Many people think of accountability only when something goes wrong or someone is trying to place blame. Actually, accountability has far broader implications. People who have a high level of accountability will take initiative to ensure the success of a project, provide early warning of potential problems, and take action to resolve a problem even if it is not their fault.

When we fail to hold others accountable, we reap the consequences –  some obvious, some not so obvious. A lack of productivity is one of the more obvious negatives that come to mind. While everyone is busy pointing fingers at each other, deadlines don’t get met, the work remains below standard or customers continue to be dissatisfied. Worse yet, things won’t get better until people stop trying to affix blame and start addressing the issue that caused the problem in the first place. This cycle will continue until people take accountability for their contribution to the problem and focus on seeking solutions.

Impact on your top performers

The impact that a lack of accountability has on your top performers is a little less obvious. What happens when someone (often a chronic poor performer) drops the ball, and we don’t hold him accountable for results? We usually give the assignment to someone we feel we can count on, and ask her to make it right. This may work in the short term, but in the long term it creates more problems than it appears to fix.

First, asking your top performers to pick up the pieces eventually will wear them out. They may very well come to see their heavier workload as punishment for good performance. In addition, taking a poorly executed assignment away from someone just reinforces the poor performance. The message is, “Don’t worry if you screw up. You won’t be asked to make it right because someone else will get the assignment.” For unmotivated employees, the lighter workload that results is, in effect, a reward for poor performance.

Perception of you as a leader

The greatest impact of not holding others accountable is that it creates a negative perception of the leader. When other members of the team see you letting someone get away with not producing the agreed upon output or keeping commitments, they begin to wonder why they are working so hard. They wonder why you don’t take action to address a poor performer who is creating problems for the rest of the team.

Yes, failing to hold others accountable reflects on you as a leader. It raises questions about your willingness to hold everyone to the same standards and creates the perception that you don’t treat people fairly and equitably. Pretty soon others on the team get the message about “what it takes to succeed around here” and the extent to which they can count on you as a leader.

Lack of accountability creates and reinforces a culture of blame – which, in turn, generates other problems. You may notice increased evasion and avoidance as well as a pervasive “don’t get caught” attitude. Innovation plunges as people become less willing to be creative and think out of the box. Employees take fewer risks (or stop altogether) because no one wants to be blamed if something goes wrong. “Blamestorming” sessions proliferate, creating a cycle of blame that ultimately shuts down communications.

So here’s the real question: If accountability is critical to execution and individual and team performance, then why don’t we consistently hold people accountable for results? There are several reasons. In fact, seven assumptions and misunderstandings – let’s call them “tickets to slide” – contribute to this phenomenon.

  1. This too shall pass. The wait and hope syndrome assumes that poor performance will improve on its own over time. “They’ll learn,” we say in the (often futile) hope that you’ll never actually need to have a conversation about meeting commitments and delivering results. Or you assume that people know what they should be doing and that this simply was a blip on the radar screen. “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt this time,” you say. Problem is, “this time” often turns into “next time” followed by “What? It happened again?”
  2. They know how I feel. You just responded in your “I’m dissatisfied” voice and put on your “I’m very disappointed” face. That should do it, right? Well, maybe not. Most of us like to assume that sending indirect messages and subtle signals not only has made our dissatisfaction known but clarified what needs to happen differently and how it needs to happen. Yes, it’s a highly unlikely outcome, but many of us prefer it to a more direct discussion of the problem and the need to take responsibility. Unfortunately, it seldom works.
  3. It will turn into an argument. Even if the other person is not difficult to work with, it’s a safe bet that he or she likely will have a different point of view. You are certain this will deteriorate into an uncomfortable conversation or, worse yet, a real disagreement. Better to let it go and avoid the conflict. But while it may be easier in the short term just to let it go, in the long run you may find that the situation has snowballed into a problem that is vastly more difficult to deal with.
  4. I made my expectations clear (I think …). One reason you may avoid holding others accountable is that, actually, you have not set clear expectations. Either you haven’t clarified what you want done, what “good looks like” or when you want it done. Without this base, don’t be surprised when you encounter more than one point of view or when conversations turn into arguments. Remember: Everything can be either measured or known. Even qualitative outputs such as customer service or quality have components that we use to know when it has been done well. Those are the things for which we can set expectations and monitor and measure.
  5. I will de-motivate or lose them. One of the challenges managers face is holding top performers accountable for behavior that is consistent with work processes and organizational values. You may be inclined to give these “superstars” some leeway because you feel they’re too important to your team’s success, and you don’t want to break their momentum or steal their mojo. Unfortunately, this sets up an undesirable dynamic among the team where people come to believe that it doesn’t matter how you hit the target – as long as you do, you’re not accountable for other aspects of performance.
  6. I will be seen as a micromanager. Over the years, consultants and academics have put the fear of micromanaging into the hearts of many leaders. We avoid the implication of it at all costs. In a world where a “collaborative” style is revered and a “command and control” style is frowned upon, the practice of monitoring has gotten an undeserved bad name and fallen out of favor. The truth is, the more you delegate and empower others, the more you need to monitor and track progress. Following up and monitoring progress are not synonymous with micromanaging. Monitoring, when done well, can be a constructive activity that provides an opportunity to make course corrections and praise good performance.
  7. It’s easier if I just do it myself. Doing it yourself may seem like a good idea when you’re making the call, but few myths are as wrong as this one. When you don’t hold others accountable and you take on the work yourself, you become complicit in the cycle of poor performance and lack of accountability. If you do not break this negative cycle, you always will have to do it yourself because you’ve missed a coachable moment and an opportunity to set expectations.

Although we are aware that it’s important, many of us still hesitate to hold others accountable for their actions. In the heat of the moment it may seem faster and less of a hassle to let something go or to wait and see what happens. However, those of us who are “one-trial learners” – meaning we don’t have to experience something more than once to get the lesson and change our behavior accordingly – know that this approach does not work in the long term.

Managing accountability in others

One reason leaders hesitate to tackle the accountability problem in a timely way is a lack of clarity on what the person is accountable for in the first place. The key is setting people up for success by clarifying expectations up front and building in time for course corrections before the deadline. This helps avoid the need to make excuses because problems are identified and solved before the due date.

Set people up for success

The best way to manage accountability is to ensure that people follow through in the first place versus trying to hold them accountable after they’ve dropped the ball. Three techniques can help you dramatically increase the chances that people will follow through and keep their commitments. The three techniques are clarifying actions and expectations, agreeing on due dates for deliverables and establishing checkpoints. The acronym ATC can help you remember the technique.

Action. This is the starting point for both setting people up for success and being able to hold them accountable after the fact, so it is critical to get it right. This is where you clarify expectations (what “good looks like”) and identify who is accountable for which parts of the work. Regardless of how good an is or how sincere an intention is, nothing happens until someone commits to taking some action to produce a specific deliverable.

It is unfair to expect someone to deliver the results you expect if those results are not outlined clearly and unambiguously. In fact, if expectations and responsibility for specific aspects of the work are up for interpretation, it’s impossible to hold someone accountable for results. Missing this first step often explains why many managers are hesitant to discuss accountability when people do not follow through or, when they do, why the conversation can deteriorate into “he said, she said” arguments.

Timetable. Just as important as clarifying actions and expectations, establishing an agreed upon due date is critical to ensuring everyone is on the same page. Due dates like “as soon as possible” and “by next week” lay the foundation for misunderstandings because your “as soon as possible” may not be anywhere near theirs. (Does “by next week” mean before next week? Does it mean Monday of next week or Friday of next week?) In addition, commitments that don’t have a time frame frequently do not get attention and usually fall by the wayside.

Checkpoints. One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting to check in until the action or deliverable is due. Although the pitfall seems obvious – waiting until the due date to check in does not leave time for solving problems – it is surprising how many people stumble into it. One explanation leaders offer for this self-defeating behavior is that they’re afraid of communicating a lack of trust in the other person’s ability or of being labeled a micromanager.

The simple, yet powerful, solution is to establish periodic progress checkpoints before the due date. The frequency of the checkpoints will depend on the difficulty of the task and the experience of the person. This technique simultaneously solves both problems: the implied lack of trust and the micromanaging. Agreeing on checkpoints with the other person makes follow-up and progress checks a shared and mutually endorsed activity. The check-ins now are part of project management. They also provide opportunities for you to coach if there is a problem and recognize and reinforce behavior when things are going well.

In addition, because you’ve outlined the milestones you are comfortable with and built in time to get things back on track if you discover there is a problem, you don’t have to give in to the temptation to make spontaneous or surprise visits or to call when you get nervous about whether the project is on track.

After-the-fact accountability

Sure, prevention is better than an after-the-fact remedy. But in the real world, people will drop the ball from time to time. Rather than berating a person for her failure to deliver results, reinforce her accountability and focus on solving problems. Three questions will encourage employees to think about how they contributed to the current situation, what they can do to get things back on track, and what they can do to prevent it from happening again.
In addition to asking these questions directly, which might come across as accusatory, you should coach people to pose the questions to themselves as a way to manage their own accountability. The three questions are:

  1. Present: “What can I do now to get on track?”
  2. Future: “What can I do to prevent this problem from happening again in the future?”
  3. Past: “What could I have done to prevent the problem? What, if anything, did I do that might have possibly contributed to the problem?”

The bottom line

Taking accountability comes naturally to some people. For many of us, however, the more natural tendency is to justify and explain why we are not responsible when things go wrong. Although you cannot change human nature, those of us in a managerial or leadership role can help create an environment that enables others to operate at a higher level of responsibility.

The key is setting people up for success by clarifying expectations up front and building in time for course corrections before the deadline. This helps avoid the need to make excuses because problems are identified and solved before the due date.

Discussions about accountability can be straightforward and potential conflicts less intense when everyone knows ahead of time what is expected and how success will be measured. Plus, of course, establishing this clarity reduces the likelihood of having to have the discussions in the first place.

This article is an excerpt from Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results, by Richard Lepsinger, ©2010 John Wiley & Sons Inc. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting, an organizational and leadership consulting firm that combines practical, research-based tools and business simulations to help clients translate issues into action. Lepsinger has 20 years of experience as a human resources consultant and executive. He co-founded Manus, a human capital consulting firm, which he grew to more than $4 million in revenue before selling it to Right Management Consultants. Lepsinger also is the co-author of four books, including Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results and Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices.

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