Defining accountability at work
Getting teams invested in their work is important when trying to reach company goals. Not only do invested teams get more work done, but their investment can drive initiative for team members to fill in gaps as they arise. One of the best approaches to getting team members invested is giving the right team members personal responsibility for a few of their tasks—this is the definition of accountability.
Granting ownership in this way can create purpose and motivation for teams to keep moving upward, as well as give managers a little more peace of mind as they relax concerns over whether or not work is getting done.
But what does the concept of accountability really entail? In some ways, the answer depends on where you work.
More often than not, workplace culture is regionally specific. For example, you’re less likely to encounter a fast-paced environment in Toledo than you are in New York. Responsibilities are assigned based on the size and scope of a company’s customer base, which can change the intensity of what it means to take ownership depending on the role. Even individual managers have unique perspectives on how much work and accountability to give team members.
In general, the meaning of accountability is that people handle their own responsibilities, and require less direct oversight from their managers. Workers get to worry less about “looking productive” and managers can spend less time checking in to ensure work is getting done. That sounds sensible in theory, but let’s dive deeper into what that looks like in practice.
Creating a culture of accountability
It’s nice to feel appreciated. When leaders make a well-planned effort to help workers realize their value within the company, everybody’s happy (usually)—but it can take creativity to find ways to do that.
Accountability is a spectrum: on one end there are leaders failing to recognize people for their contributions at all, and on the other end are leaders compensating for bad management through constant and empty celebration. Neither end is optimal for workers, which makes good accountability practices a win-win solution for everyone.
Workers who have clear expectations about their role are happier coming in and contributing. They also make life easier for their coworkers by acting as unofficial mentors, chipping in, and being a source of stability at work when managers aren’t available for support.
On the other hand, an absence of accountability leads to disorganization and frustration. Team members start to feel disconnected from their work, seeing themselves as little more than cogs in a machine that only notices them when they fall short of standards.
Many different aspects of business require a shared sense of accountability. These include:
Corporate accountability to shareholders and other stakeholders.
Political accountability to ensure all business practices are in accordance with local and federal laws.
Project management accountability tasked with keeping customers satisfied with the products they pay for.
Team lead accountability aimed at providing team members with work and fair treatment.
Putting a little emphasis on accountability can pay dividends. Let’s talk about what it looks like throughout your company.
Finding an accountability partner
Without someone to check in and see how things are going, how can there really be any accountability? Involving a coworker or mentor can be an excellent source of support and help for maintaining focus, helping to cement commitments, and driving improvement.
An accountability partner gives you someone with whom to share perspectives and insights without the usual chain of command concerns, such as not disagreeing with your boss. If there’s an idea you want to discuss with someone who has more experience—including your manager—partnerships can help you innovate and explore without worrying about decorum and formality.
Your partner might bring up points you haven’t considered, helping you to make more informed decisions. Constructive criticism from an accountability partner can also help you refine your work and follow through on commitments.
Managers and team members are the natural partnerships for this sort of thing, but peer-level relationships can also keep you honest and push you to get better. When managers ask team members to handle a task or own a project, they should establish a schedule early in order to meet deadlines and cultivate a strong work ethic over time. Regular check-ins and progress updates create a sense of rhythm and momentum.
Finally, the accountability partnership is a two-way street. Just as you benefit from the support of your partner, you are also there to support them. This kind of collaboration and reciprocity is helpful in fostering a stronger, closer workplace culture.
Levels of accountability
Helping team members develop career skills is exciting and uplifting, but it has its own challenges. Giving someone ownership increases their manager’s liability, meaning that if something goes awry, the manager—not the underling—ends up suffering the consequences.
It’s important to establish standards early on for new responsibilities. Unfortunately, this is something many managers fail to address.
Workers must understand what’s expected of them, not just as an idea, but in reality. Managers should provide examples of what good work looks like. That way, should performance drop in any way, there’s a clear metric to point to and show as a way back to acceptable output.
Standards also prevent managers from “shifting the goalposts,” where they ask for one thing early on and change their mind later.
Managers should prioritize assigned tasks based on importance, assigning them from least important to most. If a newly accountable team member makes a mistake or doesn’t measure up on a less important task, the consequences are less severe and won’t significantly hurt the company. Those tasks and responsibilities that could injure the company should only be given to someone who has proven that they can handle less important matters.
Prioritizing duties this way can make it easier for leaders to provide instruction when workers need to improve. If the issue is small, the correction can also be small.
Mistakes will happen. There’s just no way around it. Managers need to keep their cool throughout all the speed bumps of accountability.
So much of management is being able to step back and understand why someone is doing something in less-than-ideal ways. Some managers are unable to find this perspective, which can lead to emotional outbursts where they unload personal frustration with their own work onto their underling. This cannot be allowed to happen.
As a manager, you presumably possess enough restraint to maintain composure when things get rough. Employee accountability is where that will happen.
Here are some steps to keeping your cool when an employee makes a serious mistake:
Count to 10. Just the act of removing yourself mentally from the emotions you feel will make it easier to offer constructive feedback, and do so without hurting your employees’ confidence. If the heat in your head reaches a boiling point, that’s the moment to start counting.
Ask questions. Well-phrased questions are the best option for engaging with an employee who looks like they need help (no, “what’s wrong with you?” doesn’t count). Try to find the origin of their lapse in judgment so that it isn’t repeated later on. Oftentimes, mistakes shed light on issues you never even thought about.
Assess the damage with them. It may not be the most pleasant experience in the world, but giving employees a chance to understand what damage their mistake caused can help them better understand the inner workings of the company they work for. This will also give managers a chance to explain why operational policies are in place to begin with.
Give them another chance. Everyone makes mistakes, but they are essential for growth. Revoking any chance to improve and avoid the same mistake prevents the employee from both learning more and getting over the embarrassment of making that mistake.
Don’t try to forget about it. While it’s not helpful to bring up past mistakes on a regular basis, erasing them from memory is also not the answer. Moving on is a natural next step that will happen on its own time, and it doesn’t need to be rushed unnaturally. If you need to remind someone of a past mistake in order to prevent it, that’s okay.
Managers make mistakes too, one of which could be extending too much responsibility before a person is ready. Normalizing the process and encouraging people to keep trying is what separates motivators and leaders from those who are simply in charge.
Inaction isn’t a solution
When you know how something ought to be done, it’s hard not to want to do it yourself. While this approach might work for some entrepreneurs or sole proprietors, people leaders need to go out on a limb once in a while and delegate their work when possible.
Think of it as a teaching moment: by learning how to extend responsibility and who to give it to, you grow your ability to build strong teams and focus on your own work. Let others learn about decision-making and personal responsibility. Help young workers develop competency in new skill areas.
The more accountability your workplace can extend accountability to all departments, the better everyone will be able to perform.