The real meaning of accountability in the workplace

4 steps to reframing and mastering accountability in the workplace

May 10, 2021

Successful teams can’t thrive without accountability in the workplace — results and accountability are inextricably linked. Creating a company culture of accountability is often the secret of high-performing teams; it fosters better work relationships, improves job happiness, and eliminates surprises.

Why then is the meaning of accountability often charged with negative connotations, stress, and even fear?

The reason is that we're accustomed to using the term as a disciplinary measure when something's gone wrong and ownership (blame) is thrust upon someone.

Have you ever worked in a place that is routinely plagued by missed deadlines, broken promises, or teammates ignoring the rules and failing to live up to their commitments? It was probably in an organization that was low on trust and missing accountability in its strategy.

The first step toward fostering a culture of accountability in the workplace is to understand and redefine what it means.

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Redefining the meaning of accountability

Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as "the quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions."

It doesn’t mean punishment; it’s a willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions.

Henry Evans, the author of Winning with Accountability, defines it as “Clear commitments that — in the eyes of others — have been kept.”

To promote accountability in the workplace:

  1. Start with yourself
  2. Set clear expectations
  3. Create trust and psychological safety
  4. Use the Accountability Puzzle

Let's dig deeper.

1. Start with yourself

Evans suggests that we should work on ourselves first before we approach a conversation with our coworkers or direct reports. To do that he recommends noting two commitments that are important to our success — one for your work and one for your personal life. This exercise is critical whether you’re an IC, a manager, or the CEO.

“Creating an accountability culture is to recognize that wherever you are on the organizational chart, you encourage others to hold you accountable.”
— Henry Evans

Leaders are more effective in building a culture of accountability in their organization when they are willing to be held accountable by others.

In personality psychology, this concept is known as “internal locus of control.”

Someone with an internal locus of control will believe that the things that happen to them are greatly influenced by their own abilities, actions, or mistakes.

A person with an external locus of control will tend to feel that other forces — such as random chance, environmental factors, or the actions of others — are more responsible for the events that occur in the individual's life.

2. Set clear expectations

Accepting responsibility requires clarity in what is expected. Merely saying “complete the project according to the highest standards and as soon as possible” will always be unclear unless you provide specifics.

If you ask five people what “to the highest standards means,” you’ll probably get five different answers. For someone, the highest standard for a project may be defined as delivered with the greatest amount of detail and precision; someone else may find effectiveness and agility more important than perfection. It’s the same for “as soon as possible” — does ASAP mean in an hour, tomorrow, or next week?

Lack of specificity and unclear expectations create accountability gaps. To fill these gaps and reduce ambiguity, try to be as specific as possible. Try the following:

  • Define specific timeframes like “October, 3rd at 5PM your time”
  • State who is responsible for the project and effort
  • Describe what the completed version of the project should look like (goal and outcome)
  • Provide examples

3. Create trust and psychological safety

The authors for Crucial Accountability advise starting an accountability conversation by creating safety — psychological safety — for your team.

“If you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything — even about failed promises.”

Your teammates will feel unsafe if they think you don’t care about their goals or that you don’t respect them. It’s all about framing the objectives and respect as mutual.

“At the very first sign of fear, you have to diagnose. Are others feeling disrespected? Or do they believe you’re at cross-purposes? Or both? Then you have to find a way to let others know that you respect them and that you’re not going to trample all over their wishes.”

You must establish common ground before you can raise problems. Let others know that your objective is to solve the performance gap and improve things for both of you.

4. Use the Accountability Puzzle

The Accountability Puzzle is a model created by Henry Evans that helps you create accountable dialogue and actions.

The puzzle consists of four pieces:

  1. Bridging the accountability gap with clear expectations — One tool that helps with assessing specificity and clarity is the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. framework. This framework makes certain your expectation is specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, trackable, ethical, and recorded.
  2. Specific date and time — Be specific about dates, times, and time zones. Align priorities and resources with your biggest goals.
  3. One task, one owner — According to Evans, only one person should own a task, and a team cannot own a task.
  4. Going public and sharing accountability — Accountability is created when two or more people know about a specific commitment. It’s crucial to make your team your accountability partners—it’s about declaring your commitment and asking your teammates to hold you accountable.
“When you have these four components embedded in requests that you make of others, and in commitments that you make to others, individual and organizational performance improve. By knowing and understanding each piece, you can start having more productive and accountable dialogues immediately.”
— Henry Evans

Mastering accountability

Mastering accountability can help you have better performance discussions, achieve better results and outcomes, and hold people accountable in a supportive way without creating stress and fear. And it's a hallmark of highly effective teams.

To do this, you have to convey the purpose behind the work, create an environment of autonomy, and communicate specific expectations transparently.

Learn more about how Check-ins and Objectives can help build a culture of accountability, while keeping people feeling empowered and engaged.

Everyday accountability

Range keeps your team in-sync and on-track, without micromanaging. Automate check-ins, run better meetings, track goals, and build culture.

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