The real meaning of accountability in the workplace

4 steps to reframing and mastering accountability on your team

August 26, 2021
6 minutes read

Have you ever worked in an organization that was routinely plagued by missed deadlines, broken promises, and abandoned commitments? It was probably an organization that was missing accountability in its strategy.

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 because it fosters better work relationships, eliminates surprises, and improves overall job happiness.

Why, then, is the word accountability often charged with negative connotations, stress, and even fear? The reason is that we're accustomed to using the term to describe disciplinary measures or to assign blame when something has gone wrong. What if instead of associating accountability with negative consequences, we focused on incorporating it thoughtfully into our daily work?

Redefining the meaning of accountability

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

Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions."

In other words, the term doesn’t mean punishment; instead, it describes a willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions and their impact.

Henry Evans, the author of Winning with Accountability, defines it as “Clear commitments that — in the eyes of others — have been kept.” Here, the phrase “in the eyes of others” is key. In our organizations, accountability is not just about making and keeping commitments — it is also about transparency. When we make our commitments visible to our teammates, everyone is empowered to ask follow-up questions, check on progress, and help move work forward.

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 your 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 — meaning they take ownership over the impact of their actions (or inaction) and are open to teammates checking in about the status of commitments they have made.

In personality psychology, this sense of responsibility for the impact of one’s actions is known as “internal locus of control.”

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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.

As individuals, we can help to grow accountability on our teams by openly making professional (and personal) commitments and by taking responsibility for whether those commitments pan out.

2. Set clear expectations

Accepting responsibility requires clarity around 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 one person, 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?

Unclear expectations and lack of specificity create accountability gaps. To fill these gaps and reduce ambiguity, try to be as specific as possible. Test out the following strategies:

  • 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

Accountability gaps can emerge in many different contexts, but a common one is team meetings. Sometimes, when new action items come up during a meeting, they either slip through the cracks or lack enough specificity to drive follow-through.

While changes in behavior — such as using action items more effectively — can help teams stay on track, tools like Range empower teams to take accountability a step further by weaving it into their daily work. With the Range Meetings tool, for example, teams can easily document and assign action items in real time, building accountability and increasing the likelihood of follow-through.

3. Create trust and psychological safety

The authors of Crucial Accountability advise starting an accountability conversation by creating a culture of safety on your team. (Check out this blog post to learn more about the definition and importance of psychological safety in the modern workplace).

“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 honoring objectives and framing 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 dive into problems or concerns with a teammate. Let them know that your objective is to solve performance gaps and improve things for both of you.

Finding common ground and building foundations of trust and psychological safety are easier said than done. But incorporating daily, lightweight moments of connection into your team’s routine can help improve feelings of safety and trust.

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 and your team bridge the gap between goals and implementation, improve your performance discussions, achieve better results and outcomes, and hold people to their commitments in a supportive way without creating stress and fear. And it's a hallmark of highly effective teams.

To truly build a culture of accountability, you have to start with yourself, communicate specific expectations transparently, create an environment of safety and trust, and make commitments visible to your entire team.

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

Everyday accountability

Range helps teams build accountability into their daily practices, without micromanaging. Share check-ins and run meetings in Range to strengthen culture and keep your team in sync.

Here it is: The real meaning of accountability in the workplace
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