Reasonable, Possible, Understood

Some leaders believe that accountability is intrinsic, with some employees going above and beyond every time, on every task, while others do the bare minimum of work to stay under the radar. Creating an environment designed for accountability, where all employees proudly take ownership of their tasks and outcomes can significantly improve performance at the individual, team, and organizational level.[i]  

Accountability is the expectations about what an individual or organization is obliged to explain, justify, or take responsibility for. Traditionally, leaders too often have opted for  hierarchical approach to accountability, enforcing a top-down chain of command. This anachronistic view reflects a workplace in which superiors delegate authority to subordinates and hold them accountable for their decision and behavior by dictating what needs to be done, how it should be done, and the expectations for outcomes.[ii] This rarely, if ever, is effective and more likely results in unresolved issues and frustration on the part of leaders and employees.   

Fostering an environment of accountability must be fundamental within an organization’s culture.[iii] Knowing and being invested in the organization’s goals, objectives, and key results set the standards for accountability and other expected behaviors and contributions. To that end, everyone in the organization, from the line workers through the CEO, must have a unified understanding of the organization’s goals and what it stands for. Unfortunately, this clarity is glaringly absent from most organizations. A Workplace Accountability Study of 40,000 employees across industries found that 85% of survey participants were not sure what their organizations were trying to achieve.  With such a staggering imbalance it is no wonder that there is a lack of alignment and focus in understanding and successfully completing mission critical tasks.[iv]

Other factors beyond culture also influence accountability. Large or complex organizational structures can be challenged in creating an expectation of accountability because projects often involve multiple, and perhaps geographically disparate teams, which can result in blurred leadership and boundaries. Another challenge in large organizations is that decisions or changes in direction may be made by one office, but are not quickly, accurately, or effectively shared with other entities who continue to proceed under different guidelines and goals. With so many moving parts, it is not surprising that inconsistencies arise for which few, if any, participants are willing to assume responsibility. [v]

To create trusting and collaborative relationships that serve as the foundation for accountability there are three areas to consider when assigning tasks.

First, is the task reasonableDoes what you are asking an employee to do make sense in terms of its  structure, duration, and priority within the individual’s and organization’s schedule? Ensuring that roles and processes are clear is critical, and eliminating confusion and providing clear guidance on how the proceed is essential prior to implementation. Expectations must be clearly defined if organizational short- and long-term goals are to be met.[vi] The Workplace Accountability Study found that 50% of those surveyed disliked accountability because they didn’t know how to effectively implement it.[vii] Leaders cannot expect employees to be accountable without a clear understanding of what the company is trying to achieve.

Next, ensure that the task is possibleand resources are available to support its completion.  Leaders must provide support and resources, along with advice on how to improve. This helps create a learning environment where employees feel like they have the freedom to be more innovative and are comfortable seeking guidance if needed. Creating genuine accountability involves giving up the reigns, so while setting clear goals is critical, it is also important to allow employees the freedom to determine how to achieve those goals.[viii]

Employees who feel their managers care for them want to help the organization succeed; those who don’t, are unmotivated to take any initiative above and beyond their identified requirements.[ix]  [x] Teams who are motivated and work well together will identify existing gaps and create new processes that enable them to handle tasks even more efficiently.[xi] Again, this must be reflected in the organization’s culture. To encourage commitment to reaching goals, engage employees in the goal-setting process.[xii]  This helps ensure that they understand the expectations and increases their commitment to the project. Conversely a lack of clarity contributes to a lack of accountability.

Finally, the task must be understoodKnowing the goals is one thing, but being aligned on what successful completion of a task looks like might be something else entirely!  Once goals are clearly understood, leaders should provide specific, individualized metrics for each role. Further, they should be clear on how each individual’s contributions impact the overall success of the project. This requires feedback and updates on progress, which should link specifically to the goals individuals are tasked with completing.[xiii] [xiv]

To be clear, accountability is a two way process. Inherent in the assignment of a task is a supervisor’s accountability to deliver the appropriate resources to complete the task and to provide the employee with an evaluation of her effectiveness based on pre-determined and agreed upon criteria. This iterates the need for being very clear in identifying which individuals or teams are responsible for each task and letting them know the criteria by which they will be measured, individually and as part of the overall project success.  This is particularly critical with cross-functional teams. [xv]

It is also important to note that accountability shouldn’t be viewed as a precursor to punishment. Among those surveyed in the Workplace Accountability study, 80% said feedback was something that happens to them only when things go wrong, if it occurs at all![xvi] In such an environment, employees will be afraid to speak up about issues that may prevent them from task completion, and will most assuredly make them think twice before offering suggestions about a new or more efficient approach.[xvii] Certainly consequences for failing to complete tasks that are reasonable, possible, and understood should be made clear at the outset and enacted when necessary. However, penalizing employees who are unable to complete their tasks because they were not properly prepared or were required to follow an established but ineffective process is unfair and punitive. Of course, when employees know the expectations, have the resources to complete tasks, and receive feedback during the process, the likelihood of failure is virtually eliminated.

To experience the benefits that occur when accountability is an organization-wide expectation, leaders must “walk the talk” and demonstrate by example. Accountability in organizations builds trust, reduces unnecessary repetition and unproductive activity, and achieves better compliance. It may take some effort to implement effective processes, but the successful outcomes for employees and the organization are well worth the effort. 

[i] Partners In Leadership. (2014). Landmark workplace study reveals “Crisis of accountability”.

[ii] Bovens, M., Goodin, R.E., Schillemans, T. (eds.). (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability

[iii] White, D., & White, P. (2017). Build a culture of accountability in 5 steps. Entrepreneur

[iv] Partners In Leadership

[v] Ashkenas, R. (2012). Why accountability is so muddled, and how to un-muddle it. Harvard Business Review.

[vi] Robertson, A., & Dvorak, N. (2019). 5 ways to promote accountability. Gallup – Workplace.

[vii] Partners In Leadership

[viii] Browning, H. (2012). 7 ways to build accountable organizations. Forbes.

[ix] Browning

[x] Robertson & Dvorak

[xi] Browning

[xii] Robertson & Dvorak

[xiii] Browning

[xiv] Robertson & Dvorak

[xv] Ashkenas

[xvi] Partners In Leadership

[xvii] Forbes