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The concept of accountability receives an inordinate amount of attention in the work world.  And in many ways this focus on it is not only appropriate, it’s outstanding. From amazing achievements to atrocious failures, accountability is the common denominator that not only allows teams and leaders to accurately assess situations and outcomes, but also pinpoint responsibility.  Additionally, accountability’s downstream impact is to make subsequent success better, and to make subsequent mistakes avoidable.  So what is there not to like about it?

Actually, a few things.

You see, there is a problem with accountability.  And it harks back to how people accept and assess ownership.

Everyone can reasonably agree not holding yourself accountable when you are responsible for a process or result is an error.  In fact it’s the obvious answer. 

But what about the opposite scenario?  How about when hard working, intelligent and perceptive professionals hold themselves accountable too often. Or too much?  Or to the detriment of themselves and others? 

Plus there is another problem – accountability hyperextension.  When you’re a leader the buck stops with you, right? So the question is not just when you hold your team accountable, but whether you can or should. Because after all, aren’t YOU ultimately accountable for whatever happens?  Many leaders we work with believe the answer is YES! So they stretch in the direction of taking accountability too often, or bend until they hyperextend.  They sometimes reach past the point of what is productive, and to the point of damage.  

The bottom line in either case – accountability can be confusing! But it’s also crucial to get right.

So what can you do about this? 

First, consider the below accountability framework – because it’s important to think about how leaders and companies structure accountability to make it explicable, accepted, and fair. Second, recognize that accountability should not only fall on one person to the detriment of the others’ personal and professional growth. After all, accountability is the glue that connects critical decisions to crucial development. And it’s the oft-underappreciated ingredient for wisdom.  As such leaders are not the only professionals who deserve to develop it purposefully. 

*Note: This framework is cascaded in order of importance* 

      Align actions and expectations

      Initiate formal feedback

      Encourage engagement

      Exhibit accountability 

  1.   Align actions and expectations.  Many firms benefit from designing accountability not by role, but by result.  This intensifies cross-functional communication at every level, and enables flexibility for staff and leaders to stretch across skill-based barriers for the benefit of the objective. After all, engineers can also write.  HR specialists can also help curate customer service strategies.  Executives can also follow.  Accountability oriented by result makes achievement a team sport (more on this topic in next month’s blog!).
  2.   Initiate (limited) formal feedback.  This helps staff clearly see and accept accountability for their individual production in the project. 
  3.   Encourage employee engagement. This enables staff to hold each other accountable, informally.  According to a Gallup poll, team engagement can also increase productivity and profitability by 21%. So team-centric accountability is not just good for the group dynamic. It’s not just a feel-good thing. It’s actually phenomenal for the bottom line.
  4.   Exhibit accountability at the executive level. This does not mean hyperextending to take ownership for every action and result produced by your team. Sometimes it can mean providing creative avenues for teams to accept responsibility, or enabling staff to learn from missteps and course correct themselves.

Simon Sinek once said, “Give someone responsibility and they will do their best. Make them accountable and they will do even better.”

Doing even better is the opportunity.  And being accountable, appropriately and with awareness, is the key that unlocks access to it.  Creating a clear sense of what is expected from employees will help encourage them to stay on track and keep each other aligned with the project or purpose. And developing leaders who not only accept responsibility but can help others find occasions to encounter and grow is critical.   

Following the framework will get you started.

Author Cece Berger Sharp

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