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Being Accountable

| January 26, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Being accountable is your ticket to earning the right to hold others accountable.     ––  Dan McCarthy

In the course of our work, we develop strategies, we make plans, and assign or delegate the resulting tasks to teams (usually, through their team lead) or to individuals.  As we do this, we start the process of accountability, of putting in place expectations that the result(s) associated with the task will be delivered in a timely manner, at a high level of quality, and within the budget we explicitly or implicitly set for the task.  Accountability is the process of being answerable for the delivery of the expected results.
And, while too often, we think of accountability only as a negative, that’s not correct.  When you give positive feedback for good work and good results, and talk about what specifically the individual did, accountability is fundamentally also good.  Without a system of accountability, you would likely not have known the good things that came along the way and, even more likely, not said anything to anyone involved in delivering the work.
So, what can you as a leader do to instill a culture of accountability?  What process can you use to support the individual or team as they work to deliver the expected result?  I’d like to suggest eight actions:
1.  Set Clear Expectations – Be very clear about what you expect.  This includes being clear about the outcome, the project’s milestones, and how you will measure success.  Have a real conversation with those who will do the work, and before it’s over, ask that they summarize the important pieces of the discussion – the expected outcome, how they are going to achieve it, the interim milestones, how they will communicate their progress, and how they’ll know whether they’re successful – to make sure everyone is on the same page.  Having those who will do the work write a summary is good, but it’s not a replacement for the discussion.  Bob Whipple, CEO of Leadergrow, puts it this way:  “Holding people accountable when the instructions are vague is like beating an untethered horse for wandering off the path to eat grass.”
2.  Ascertain Capability – What skills do those on the project need to deliver the result?  What resources will they need?  If the person does not have what’s necessary, can he or she acquire what’s missing?  If so, what’s the plan for doing that?  If your prospects for doing the work are not able to come up to speed, you’ll need to delegate it to someone else.  Otherwise, the project will not meet its goal.
3.  Invite Commitment – You’ve talked with those who will be involved in the project.  However, just because they know what to do doesn’t mean they will do it.  After goals and expectations are set, those involved need to commit to achieving them.  Staff are more likely to commit when they understand how the goals will help the organization move forward, benefitting the organization as a whole and themselves.  Watch out for words like “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best.”  Ask for and listen to their concerns and discuss them.  Help them overcome the barriers, understand the benefits, figure out what is needed for success.  And, then ask if you have their commitment to deliver the result – to specification, on time, and on budget?  You’re looking for a personal commitment, not for their best efforts.  The likelihood of a successful project completion goes up significantly with such a personal commitment.
4.  Measure Progress – Nothing frustrates leaders more than being surprised by failure.  Sometimes this surprise is because the person who should be delivering is afraid to ask for help;  sometimes it’s from premature optimism.  Either way, it’s avoidable.  If milestones are missed, address the issue, identify a fix, redesign the schedule, or respond in some other way that gets the person and project back on track.
5.  Provide Feedback – Honest, open, ongoing feedback is critical.  And, it’s a gift.  People should know where they stand.  If you have clear expectations, capability, and measurement, the feedback can be fact-based and easy to deliver.  Is the person delivering on his or her commitments?  Is he or she working well with the stakeholders?  If capability needs to be increased, is he or she on track?  The feedback can go both ways – is there something you can be doing to be more helpful?  Give, and receive, feedback at least in conjunction with the task’s milestones, and remember it’s more important to be helpful than nice.
6.  Consequences – If you’ve been clear in all of the above ways, you can be reasonably sure that you have done what’s necessary to support their performance.  At this point, you have three choices:  repeat, reward, or release.  Repeat the steps above if you feel that there is still a lack of clarity in the system.  If the person succeeded, reward them appropriately.  If they have not proven accountable (and you are reasonably certain that you followed the steps above), then they are not a good fit for this role, and you should release them from the assignment.  Remember not to confuse consequences with punishments.  Punishment is designed to make an employee pay for their shortcomings.  Consequences guide and focus an employee’s behavior and encourage them to take their commitments more seriously.
7.  Evaluate Effectiveness – Once your employees have committed to the expectations you set and you have provided constructive feedback and support along the way, it is time for you to evaluate your results.  Look at the quantifiable goals you set forth and determine if you were successful at holding your employees accountable for reaching those goals.  Also, review how you handled the process.  Find ways to be more effective at applying the principles of accountability and hold yourself accountable for holding others accountable.
8.  Celebrate Success – Acknowledge the successful completion of your projects.  This may take the form of a hand-written note to the individual who did the work, acknowledgement of the work in an all-hands meeting with remarks about the importance of the project, an article in the group’s newsletter, …  Your celebration of good work recognizes the good work of the individuals involved and it also tells others that you aware of the good work being done; and it breeds more good work.
Following this process as you delegate tasks to your staff puts you on a path to instill a culture of accountability in your organization.  Peter Bregman, CEO of a company whose work strengthens leadership in people and their organizations, takes it a step further.  He believes that it is useful to make this process public and to discuss it with the people you will be asking to be accountable before there’s a specific project on the line.
If you don’t now have any process for accountability – either for yourself or for your team, I encourage you to, this week, explore whether this one might work for you.  I think you may be surprised at the positive impact it will have on you and the work done in your organization.
Make this week a really great one for you and your team.  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Peter Bergman, The Right Way to Hold People Accountable, Harvard Business School Blog. 
Dan McCarthy, How to be Accountable and Hold Others Accountable, Great Leadership Blog. 
Brian Cole Miller, Holding Others Accountable is SIMPLE, Working Solutions Blog. 
Bob Whipple, 8 “Be-Attitudes” of Holding People Accountable, Leadergrow Blog.