I have noticed a theme when working with managers and leaders across a variety of organizations lately.  There is a deep concern about the ‘lack of accountability’ within the workplace.  This problem seems to be adversely impacting both execution and morale.  I’m hearing more requests for training and coaching for “accountability”.

I find this concept to be a bit puzzling.  To me, accountability is not a skill to be learned but rather the desired outcome of an effective leadership style and a strong culture of results.  Accountability is the result, not the activity.

So, if there is no magic bullet training program for accountability, how does it happen?

In order to hold people accountable for results, the team first needs to be clear about the mission – where are we going and why?  It’s very difficult to know if one has achieved success if we cannot measure it.  How will we know when we have accomplished the goal?  No it is not intuitive – good managers need to make it very clear how success is defined and measured.  Be explicit about what you expect and by when.

Once the team has a good sense of direction, the next job of the leader is to make sure that roles and responsibilities are well defined.  Very often, shared accountability means that no one is responsible and finger pointing ensues when things are not going well.  An exercise to clearly define primary and shared accountability for projects and tasks is almost always a good use of time – who is accountable should be clear to the entire team, not just to the designated individual.

Now it can get tricky, an effective leader must resist the temptation to tell the team how to achieve the goal.  Poor managers can easily get trapped into micro-managing the how which undermines buy-in and accountability.  It is then no longer that person’s responsibility but it is now the manager’s.

Instead, leaders must focus on “how is it going” questions.  Check-in early and often.  Encourage, course correct, coach and remind as needed.  This critical step is too often overlooked – after all, the assignment has been delegated and the leader is too busy to check back!  That approach can unintentionally send the message that the project is not all that important as the leader is not making time for it.  If a leader does not ask for updates along the way, it can be too late to make necessary adjustments by the time they do and the target is missed.  Who then is accountable for the failure?

A little more on the importance of checking in – it can involve a fair amount of skill by the leader to deliver timely and robust constructive feedback. This step gets overlooked when managers try to avoid conflict or rush through with superficial input.  This is where accountability too often gets confused with “getting my butt chewed because I missed a deadline”.  Accountability without good feedback becomes too much about negative consequences.  Feedback must be clear, consistent, and frequent – both positive and constructive.  Focus on the goal and the behaviors needed in order to achieve it.  It’s not personal so it should not cause conflict.

Along with this, recognize progress and success. I have heard time and time again from associates over the years that they feel a lack of recognition and appreciation for their efforts.  Nothing kills morale faster than when no one seems to notice your work.

Finally, leaders must lead by example.  When a leader takes personal accountability for his or her actions, it sends a powerful message.  When a leader owns a mistake and talks about what he or she learned from it, it empowers the team.  A culture of accountability develops when team members are allowed to make reasonable mistakes – fail fast and move on from it.  When the team trusts that the leader has their back, they will try harder, push boundaries, and take more ownership.

Let’s summarize, I believe that this ‘accountability crisis’ within organizations is really the result of ineffective leaders and unhealthy organizational cultures.   Consistent and deliberate attention to simple management strategies – have a vision, define outcomes, clarify roles & responsibilities, check on progress, and give feedback – are the building blocks of an accountable workforce.

Accountability is not an action – it is an outcome.  There is no magic bullet, it takes hard work and discipline.  The results of an accountable workplace is where the magic happens.