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What is accountability, really?

Asha must be held accountable for the project’s failure.

How does your mind interpret that?

A lot of people will think that means, “we need to punish Asha”. In fact, many dictionaries use the word ‘punish’ in their definitions of accountability.

Well then, perhaps it’s no surprise that managers shy away from the whole idea of accountability. Who wants to punish a team member or direct report and how would they do that? What does an organisation get if they invest time, money and energy punishing someone? 

Some organisations are lax about accountability. Team members may not be asked about their progress on a project. If something goes wrong, there isn’t a process of learning from mistakes and mishaps. A lot may be lost because accountability is not being held effectively.

Holding someone to account – especially in a business setting – does not have to be about punishment and it doesn’t need to be harsh. Accountability is about having agreements about what tasks are going to be accomplished, by whom and by when. It’s about ownership and responsibility. And it’s about getting results.

Accountability can have positive connotations too. For many of us, knowing that someone is expecting something from us can be motivating and even feel supportive through the challenges of day-to-day work.

This kind of accountability can build or reinforce trust, it can help create clarity of roles and responsibilities, it can help people develop and feel proud of their contribution to the overall project.

So let’s work on improving our relationship to accountability; here are some tips:

  • Clarify who is doing what and by when
  • Ensure the people have the skills or can gain the skills needed for their role
  • Check on progress and celebrate successes.
  • Support your people if they are not performing rather than blaming or punishing them.
  • Acknowledge when deadlines are missed and get curious about what happened. Learn from this and figure out how to do this better next time.

This approach requires leaders to be curious and to have a growth mindset. It requires a focus on short term results as well as a focus on the bigger picture of where the organisation is going. It may also require some grit and assertiveness to make sure that progress happens in the right direction. The leaders we need to guide us into the future need a wide array of skills. They need to be able to stay calm and stay the course during constant change and turmoil. They need to keep their eye on results while also supporting their people to grow and develop. And they need to understand why wellbeing, positivity and accountability must all work together.

Rewired to Lead

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