What do you mean – ‘accountable’?

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Questions from the Real World:  February, 2011

We always talk about “accountability” but everyone seems to have a different perspective on what accountability means.  Can you talk about what it means to be accountable, both from the point of view of the subordinate as well as the boss? ~Mike, Seatac, WA

Jim’s response

What does it mean to be accountable? What a great question! The term comes from the Roman Senate, which would tabulate the votes of the Senators by having them stand in one of two circles on the floor

Jim Hessler, Path Forward Founder

indicating their choices on the issue at hand. The Senators in the two circles would then be counted, becoming “accountable” in a public way for their vote.

So I have an association of accountability with something that is public — seen — measured in some way. As managers we need to know and acknowledge when commitments and goals, including our own, have been met, and when they have not.

Accountability doesn’t mean working hard, or doing your best. I think we give ourselves too much credit sometimes for our intentions. “Do or do not, there is no try,” in the words of Yoda. Accountability ultimately meanswe agreed on what needed to be done, we gave ourselves the proper training, resources and sponsorship to get the work done, and then we measured the results in an honest way to see how we did. We don’t hide from the results, good or bad.

Accountability is the hardest and softest of words. It’s a hard word because it means we have to see our failures as clearly as we see our successes — perhaps even more so. It’s hard because if we’re doing accountability right we’re setting hard targets, with dates, and names of those responsible. We are having to make choices of what NOT to do so we can do other things instead. We are having to push ourselves through obstacles and barriers. We have to have tough conversations and find new ways of communicating with all kinds of people. In the end we need to stand in the circle with everyone knowing whether we did or didn’t meet the objective.

But accountability is also the softest of words because the motivation to be held accountable and to perform is fed by a complex stew of emotions. The biggest ingredient in the stew, I think, is trust. And this trust is added to the stew every day by the leaders who establish the organization’s culture around accountability. People want to be held accountable — but only if they are signed on for the mission and purpose of the work.  If they don’t believe in the leader and/or the vision, they will avoid or resent accountability no matter how strongly it is reinforced.

I suggest you gather your team around a table and ask each other what it means to be held accountable to each other.

And ask what gets in the way.  Accountability is the glue that keeps the organization together. Learn together how to make it strong.

One last note — consistency. If you hold 9 of 10 people in your team accountable, the fact that you didn’t hold the 10th will damage trust significantly with the other 9.

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Steve’s response

“Accountable.”  What does it mean?

One thing it doesn’t mean is “the act of giving birth.”  That’s what “accouchement” means.  That’s a whole ‘nother word.

Quite simply, to be “accountable” is to follow through on all the details of your commitments.

How you get there – now that’s a whole ‘nother question.  A question that deserves a book, not a blog post – although Plank 10 (“Expect Accountability”) of our book, Land On Your Feet, is the definitive concise treatment, IMHO.  Cheap plug, but I mean it.

So for this, even more concise, treatment of how to get ideal accountability in your team, here’s a brief checklist:

Steve Motenko, Partner

1.    You need a vision, a goal – something to be accountable to.  The more inspiring the vision, the greater the likely accountability.
2.    You need the right people on the bus.  Who’s instrumental in reaching the goal?  Who’s instrumental in making sure obstacles are removed?  Who’s instrumental in prioritizing the goal?  Get ‘em all on the bus.
3.    You need everyone on the bus to agree on the goal, in all its details.  Not through a one-way presentation and head nods, but through active enrollment.  You have to assess and align everyone’s understanding of the vision and the path to reaching it.
4.    You need everyone to be motivated, preferably intrinsically, to achieve the goal.  However they derive their personal satisfaction — whether from “winning” or from creating or from efficiency or from teamwork or from attention to detail – each bus rider needs to anticipate and then experience personal satisfaction from the project.
5.    You need the processes and systems – including communication vehicles — to support reaching the goal.  Ain’t many jobs these days that don’t require some sort of collaboration.
6.    You need the time and resources to reach the goal.
7.    And for more complex visions, you need a project plan to tie all of the above together.
8.    Finally, you need to regularly debrief finished assignments — to mine lessons for producing even greater future success.

In an eight-part nutshell, those steps comprise “the act of giving birth” to accountability on your team.

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