Why is accountability something that everyone talksabout but few are good at? Somewhere around 80% of the organizations and senior leaders we work with have issues with the A-word.

Some say it means holding people responsible for the results they deliver. Many assert that when people don't deliver, they should be shown the door.

Others maintain they would support showing people the door if the expectations for results were realistic, but they don't set goals or targets that people believe in so it might not be fair to punish people for what wasn't possible in the first place.

The common theme that emerges is that someone somewhere should stand in judgment to suffer the consequences for people who fail to deliver on the promises they made to their budget, team, or organization.

People widely believe that this would create a more accountable organization and higher performance. But I have to wonder why so many intelligent people think that having a nonperformance court would instantly create better performance.

What is Good Accountability?

The difference between organizations that are good at accountability and those that are not so good all starts with the way they approach it. The ones that want people punished are the ones that struggle.

The ones that focus on creating accountability in others [J(opposed to holding others accountable) are the ones that are really strong. This may seem like a subtle nuance of language, but the difference is actually enormous. The former is a little like a traffic cop who sets up a speed trap to catch and ticket offenders, while the latter is like a coach who makes sure that the preparation, practice, and game-time behaviors are integrated in the on-field performance.

Mike Thaman, CEO of Owens Corning, puts it this way:

"I'd hear people say, 'Well, we need to hold people accountable,' which seems like a pretty simple concept - tell them what they need to do and then expect them to get it done. But that prescription used repeatedly to solve a problem in an organization doesn't actually drive accountability.

If you pick the right people, you emotionally commit them to your goal, and literally commit them to it for a period of time as part of their career, you can get accountability much quicker. The goal is to get leaders to bring people to accountability as something we all desire together."

He adds,

"If any portion of your thought process in your business day is, 'What happens if this doesn't work?' then you're spending time thinking about something that's not helping your shareholders, your customers, or your company. The thought process you want is, 'When we make this happen, how is it going to affect our customers, our employees, and our shareholders? What are the barriers to making this happen and how do we knock them down?'"

Amen to that!

Three Perspectives That Are Essential for Creating Accountability in Others

  1. Spend the time up front with people to set the context.                                           Explain the why and the what rather than swooping in on the back end to take over the how. Be crystal clear about what you expect, how you will offer support, the outcomes you are looking for, how success will be measured, and what the consequences will be if the goals aren't met. Ask the other person what he or she heard so you can be sure everyone is on the same page.
  2. Be transparent in discussions on capabilities and resourcing.                                  Work together to define the capabilities that are needed to deliver on the required outcomes. Resourcing is one of the most critical aspects of building accountability in others. Help by getting clear on what's needed, which skills everyone can contribute, and what gaps will exist that must be addressed by outside resources.
  3. Be sure your people know where they stand at all times.                                                    If the expectations are clear, the feedback can be direct and fact-based. Be sure the feedback is constantly two ways- make sure everything is on track and set up for success, and listen to how you can be supportive in removing roadblocks or even reassessing the resourcing requirements when necessary.

Our North Star in creating accountability in others should be to ensure that people realize as much of their own potential as they possibly can, based on their abilities and a shared picture of success. Instead of putting boundaries around people, we must get more people to have the courage to challenge our status quo, the confidence to search for and find a better way to achieve the targets we set, and expand the capabilities of the people we lead. If we do this, then we ensure that creating accountability in others is something we achieve together!