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As much as organizations throw around the word "accountability," you'd think they'd be better at it. One out of two leaders - from C-suite executives to middle managers - is "terrible" at accountability, according to a recent study. The other half, I have my doubts about. How can they expect their employees to hold themselves to a higher standard? Without an accountability process, at all levels, organizations have to settle for subpar results.

Accountability Matters

While it can be argued that accountability is intrinsic, it flourishes in cultures where it is expected and practiced. Organizations want people who will take responsibility for their own actions and who are aware of how they affect their job, the team, and the company as a whole.

True, some individuals have more of an impact on others, for instance, senior leaders, management, and even subject matter experts. Their roles touch others and influence the direction of the organization. If they can't hold themselves and their teams accountable, good luck trying to get anyone else to. There has to be systemic accountability, a process by which people are held accountable and hold each other accountable.

Following Through On Accountability

One of the best ways to promote personal accountability is also one of the most simple. Once a week, managers meet with their direct-reports. This gives them a vital touch point, an opportunity to ask, "Where are we on this?" or, "How are you doing with that?" An alternative to that: If a team is working on a project, and the managers are not checking in with them every week, they need to have a schedule - and someone has to own it. Someone has to be the "sheriff," as Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser write in Harvard Business Review.

If Joe said he was going to do X, and Sally said she was going to do Y, someone has to own the responsibility for checking in. That person really can't be the one pushing Joe or Sally to get it done, however. The scheduler, note taker, sheriff, whatever you want to call it, has to report back to the manager.

There is a place for both approaches, depending on the situation. Another case for one-on-one accountability, though, lies in the nature of organizations today. In companies where people work across different departments, and report to different managers or supervisors, their bonuses, increases, and reviews don't come from just one boss anymore. They're even influenced, often, by peer feedback. It's like crowdsourcing.

One-on-one accountability to the manager has a bigger impact that way. People want their raises! They want to get their bonuses, or they don't want to be known as the slacker in the office.

Both approaches to accountability are appropriate, but for different reasons and at different times. The trick is not only knowing what those reasons are and when those times are, but being willing and able to make accountability a priority. It has to start with leaders. If the culture doesn't support accountability, it's just not going to happen on its own.


Larry Hart

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