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"It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible but also for what we do not do." Moliere

Accountability is always top-down. If you, as leader do not hold others, and yourself, accountable, there is little chance anyone else will, at least not in the long-term. There is also little chance that your change initiatives will achieve their goals - not in long-term or the short-term.

Jerald Jellison, workplace psychologist and author of Managing the Dynamics of Change, emphasizes, "Faulty implementation, not ill-conceived ideas, causes most change initiatives to fail." To succeed, you need to build a culture of accountability. Dr. Jellison offers a brick-by-brick method that allows you to do just that.

The Accountability Balance

While accountability is an essential component of any organization at any time, it is particularly important in the early stages of a change initiative. Your team members have to understand both the benefits of embracing the change - and the consequences of failing to do so.

At the same time, you can swing too far on either end of the pendulum: "If you're too strident, you'll sound as if you're more intent on punishment than progress. However, if you treat it too lightly, employees won't take you seriously."

The following elements of accountability will help you find a balance that's, in the words of Goldilocks, "just right."

1. Set Performance Expectations Mutually.

Want your employees to be accountable? You first. To ensure mutual accountability and agreement, work with your people to hammer out expectations. And when they need specific tools, training, feedback, coaching, and support to meet their end of the bargain, your obligation is to provide them.

2. "Specify Performance Agreements at Ground Level."

In his book, Jellison describes how leaders are often lost in the "stratosphere of grand ideas." Decrease altitude: instead of amorphous terms like "vision" and "innovation," get specific. Using SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals is one way to help you do this. When creating these goals, ask:

  • What goals should each person/group pursue? What results do they need to produce?
  • How will they reach this goal?
  • Who bears primary responsibility for ensuring it is done?
  • When will it be done?
  • What resources are required?
  • How are team members going to communicate their progress?
  • What are the consequences of meeting the goal or failing to meet the goal?
3. Specify the Consequences of Performance.

Use two if-then statements with individuals and/or teams. If you achieve X goal, then you will receive Y rewards. And, you guessed it: If you do not achieve X goal, then you will incur Y costs. Make sure this is clear from the onset.

4. Link Performance to Larger Goals.

Bust down the silos and barriers that keep people from performing as a team. It's easy to get lost in one's own responsibilities; but aligning them to larger goals can help your team achieve a sense of achievement and pride in their work.

5. Plan for Problems.

They're going to happen; you may as well be prepared. Ask folks to brainstorm different problems that may come up. You can also discuss challenges you foresee. Then, have them make suggestions for handling them. When team members hit a roadblock - and they will - they will be better equipped to maneuver over, around, or through it.

6. Create a Plan for Communicating Progress. How often will people communicate? In what format (emails, calls, in-person meetings)? When should they send and receive those messages? Communication tends to be more frequent during the early stages of a change initiative, but keep the lines open throughout the process.

7. Publicly Commit to Accountability.

Depending on the nature and behaviors of people on your team, you may need to get them to commit to agreement - publicly, or even in writing.

Jellison writes that the "idea behind accountability is very simple." You articulate your expectations and the consequences of meeting them, or failing to meet them. But as is the case with things that are "very simple," often accountability is neglected. Or it's assumed. Or it's hoped for. None of these will actually create a culture in which people hold themselves and others responsible.

These steps, on the other hand, will help you create a culture of accountability. And if you want your change initiatives to have a fighting change, then you need to put them into action.


Larry Hart

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