Throughout the course of my 30 years as a social entrepreneur, one of the most common frustrations I’ve seen arise in workplaces is the issue of accountability. And I know I am not alone! So many of us have experienced frustrating or unworkable accountability in our teams. A recent Inc. Magazine article about a study on teams at Google listed psychological safety and dependability as the top first and second dynamics that characterized productive teams (Buchanan, 2016). And the following quote from a study also points out just how common it is:
The Workplace Accountability Study recently revealed that 82% of respondents have no ability to hold others accountable, but 91% of people rank accountability as one of the top development needs they’d like to see at their organization
Despite how common a challenge, getting effective accountability is often tricky to achieve. In this blog post we explore why true accountability is so important including looking at symptoms and causes, followed by exploring some of the myths around accountability that prevent us from obtaining true accountability, and we’ll introduce you to four tips for achieving true accountability in your teams.
By true accountability I mean the ability of individuals and teams to collaboratively determine and deliver on their commitments. The lack of this kind of accountability has some pretty expensive consequences to organizations. To name a few top examples of common challenges with accountability from my experience:
Embarrassing and/or expensive mistakes can be common. I worked with a catering business that would frequently face having forgotten items upon arrival at their delivery site. This of course cost the business money and credibility.
Having people don’t feel appreciated for their work, and at the same time people who actively try to hide to get away with doing as little as possible, is the result of lack of accountability. One nonprofit that we worked with was surprised to find a key worker in the organization was doing a tremendous amount of work that only one other person really had a clue about. Discovering this not only enabled the team to more equitably redistribute work but also helped the individual in question feel seen and appreciated.
Compromised follow through
Well-intentioned people committing to a project and then not following through is reliably a source of pain for organizations. Here’s an example from my experience: A small college’s strategic planning team was frustrated by the forgetfulness of the individual who said they would conduct some key research and didn’t, simply because they forgot they’d agreed to get it done.
Burnout and resentment
It’s a detriment to a team and the individuals involved to have some people working harder and getting more done than others, including being given more work because they are capable i.e. their ability to perform becomes a liability. And here’s a quote that emphasizes this problem.
In organizations with accountability problems, poorly performing employees have less work to do because they have ‘‘trained ’’ their supervisor not to count on them.
Inability to increase performance and achieve desired/needed results
One manufacturing organization we trained had trouble increasing sales according to plan because the individuals accountable were unable to put time into it. Accountability can falter even when expectations are clear due to lack of clarity on how to prioritize our time.
High turnover and/or feeling trapped
When there’s no good place for people to raise their tensions about accountability and get them processed, people can feel trapped in bad working conditions. An online education company faced unusually high turnover because there was no clear mechanism for addressing accountability issues with the owners. If people couldn’t leave because of personal financial issues, they felt trapped, leading to disengagement.
So I want to take just a few minutes to go over the common causes of lack of accountability to flush out this territory and prepare us for thinking about the concrete solutions that we’ll present in our tips.
One of the clients we’ve trained is a bank, and their strategy team complained of the bickering and infighting that regularly occurred because their expectations were not aligned about who was doing what by when. Teammates didn’t really know what was their work and what was not. Getting that clear allowed much more generative conversations to happen.
Lack of visibility into what teammates are working on
When we can’t see what someone else is up to, it’s much easier to assume that they aren’t getting much done, even if they are. When a team of technicians at a radio station realized that they didn’t really know what projects everyone was up to, allowed them to do an exercise to surface all the projects and align them strategically.
Expectations that are generated from the top-down only
When orders about what one is supposed to do come only from the top, accountability suffers. And here’s a real life example in a quote from a business owner that we trained.
In eleven years as a business owner, I had not found the kind of help I needed to work toward this objective. Some of my primary objectives as a business owner were to share power and to avoid the abuse of power, and I failed at both of these time and again, causing a great deal of suffering for myself, to others and to the capacity of the business to serve us all.
When one doesn’t know how to generate expectations from the input of all impacted, the ability to be accountable and engaged decreases.
Too many projects being worked on at the same time
Many of us might be painfully familiar with a constant state of having too much to do and all of it being important. When one lives in this kind of situation, being able to deliver on one’s commitments, even if one knows what they are and intends to do so, becomes compromised along with our health.
Information needed for work is not available or requires extra effort to get
For an example of this, imagine a landscaping company trying to plant a big tree with a huge root ball and accidentally hitting the gas line, causing an explosion, injuries to workers and to the property of the home owner. If the company had been clear on who was accountable for calling to get the lines marked, this would have avoided the accident all together.
People being assigned to roles they are not qualified for nor a good fit
When people are promoted for political reasons not for their skills and capacities, or when people have to pick up roles due to constrained financial conditions, one can count on accountability issues. For example, in one small start up where there were only 3 people on staff, the marketing role was given to someone with little marketing experience and a deeply seated distaste for marketing. The result was lackluster sales.
No clear deadlines, goals or priorities, or consequences for not meeting them
When there is a sense that it doesn’t matter when one gets to a project, or that there are no consequences to not doing so for either oneself or one’s team or organization, getting stuff done can fall prey to procrastination. Lack of super clear priorities works in the same manner and allows people to focus on work they are interested in vs. work that the organization really needs them to get done now.
Lack of performance reviews or feedback
Performance reviews and regular opportunities for feedback, both positive and negative, are critical to accountability along with processes for the personal development requests that come out of those conversations. One team found itself held hostage by an individual who consistently under-delivered due to personal development issues and without the performance reviews and concrete, safe opportunities for feedback, the team was stuck.
Accountability is a huge issue in most teams. And it’s interesting to see what people commonly assume will fix these issues. So let’s explore the top three myths I’m familiar with around accountability. In other words, these are things people think will solve accountability issues but really, on their own, do not.
“It mostly has to do with having the ‘right people’ on a team.”
So this first myth reflects the bias that accountability mostly has to do with individual performance. And while this is partially true, it fails to recognize the huge role that systems and processes play in enabling accountability. The problem with relying on individual performance is that most people are not particularly adept at balancing multiple competing priorities under pressure without getting overwhelmed and under producing. So accountability systems, which I’ll talk about in the tips, are critical to creating a foundation for accountability that supports people in delivering on their commitments.
“If we just had more money…”
Another myth is that if we just had more money we’d be able to solve our accountability problems. Again, this is partially true but also misses the point. With more money a team could theoretically hire someone with able to fill in the gaps on the team. But even with firing the under-producers, a team still has to be able to be accountable to each other and stay aligned and productive. Adding a new person into that mix will only add further confusion. So starting by aligning your accountability systems can save you time and money even in the short run.
“I can’t really hold others accountable unless I’m the manager.”
And the third myth is common enough that it’s showed up in research. The sense is that we don’t really have the power to hold others accountable unless we’re the manager. It’s true that managers theoretically have more power than others on a team. But most managers don’t really know how to hold others accountable and struggle with figuring this out themselves. So a set of practices that enable collaborative accountability can be key for both team leads and all the team members simultaneously.
Let’s take a look at four tips for accountability out of the dozens that we’ve researched and synthesized into the collaborative operating system, called Collab, that we teach. These are the top four that we recommend getting started with and hope you give them a try. However, implementing this stuff in organizations can be a tricky affair, so we recommend you consider further training and support during this transformation.
Tip #1 role clarity
So the first tip that I want to share with you has to do with clarifying expectations. When we know what is expected of us, it’s far easier to be accountable to those expectations. So let’s take a moment to talk about what roles are and how to make them clear. Roles are a specific area of work defined by accountabilities. And there are several keys to making roles work well.
Develop roles with the whole team
The first key is that roles are best developed and passed by the whole team. This way everyone knows what everyone else is accountable for and has a chance to buy in.
Roles = autonomy and accountability
The second is having those roles confer the autonomy to deliver on that work. But this only works if you have some of the other aspects of a strong accountability system in place.
Projects fall within roles
And the third key is to have all projects nest under specific roles, which leads us into the next tip.
Tip #2 the ops reports
So if we have clear roles into which all our projects fall, with projects being a body of work that has a defined end, then reporting on those projects on a regular basis to the whole team produces an increase in productivity, because most people prefer to show up to report having accomplished what they said they would.
In addition, ops reports produce visibility. With visibility we get to appreciate good work done well, and ask questions and raise tensions about work not done.
Furthermore ops reports allow us to rank order our projects in alignment with current strategy and share that with the team, so we can regularly stay focused on what’s most important to the team.
Tip #3 the task tracking system
The third tip I want to share with you is the importance of task tracking. In our current day and age, it is impossible for us to keep track of all of the details of a complex and fast paced work agenda without an external memory system for keeping track of it all. So, set your team expectations for each individual to have a task tracking system. I highly recommend that this system be transparent to everyone on the team and visible in real time so you can use it during your ops reports as a visual for all projects.
The advantage of a team based virtual or offline task tracking system is that it’s easier to get all team members on board and to monitor their progress. Mistakes or missed tasks can be much more easily spotted and accounted for, and this kind of transparency works for most people to significantly increase their accountability since it virtually eliminates the response ‘ooops, I forgot about that task!’
Tip #4 role to soul fit
Once you have your roles clear on a team and are using the ops reports and task tracking, if you want to achieve the highest level of productivity and accountability, getting the people into those roles that are the best fit for them in terms of capacity, skills, and personality is highly effective. The trouble with roles filled by people who either can’t do the work, or don’t like to do that particular work, is that you and they will always be swimming upstream. It’s much more tempting to fall into procrastination when the work you have laid out in front of you is difficult, or you lack the training to do it well, or it makes you inherently uncomfortable. So finding the right people for the roles is critical to sustaining accountability.
The place to begin with this is to get all of your work expectations clear and to know which talents are needed for which roles. Then with a simple analysis of every individual in an organization, pairing people with the roles that are a good fit for them, is much more possible.
Getting to effective, true accountability can be challenging but is well worth the effort. Imagine what it might be like for you to have a organization full of inspiring, leaders, with tools that enable you to hack your work into flows and effective outcomes? Well, for one thing, improving your accountability will save you time and energy and open up the space for everyone on the team to be more of their full selves, which simply feels better and frankly gets better results. You can look forward to the following.
Working together productively with flow and satisfaction.
I now feel invigorated and excited to work with my business partners – and our work contributes to a meaningful practice of providing service to others while also caring for ourselves. Without this new framework and tools, I would not be in this position.
Working in collaboration with others can be profoundly frustrating, and that frustration is simply a drain on both organization and individual. Getting to flow and satisfaction produces a host of benefits including longevity, in other words, people sticking around to contribute to an organization’s success.
Mutual support & accountability.
Collab proved to be the exact prescription necessary to aid us in our problems of inefficiency, lack of accountability, unclear roles and management structure. This system has organic roots that speak to the basics of human organization, while simultaneously embracing technologies that allow us to prioritize and systematize in our daily lives. I found these techniques to be very straightforward and succinct, while allowing for necessary flexibility.
One of the biggest challenges of collaborative work environments where we are explicitly sharing power is accountability, both how we support each other in getting our work done and how we hold each other accountable in the process.
A real distribution of power and voice.
This one is huge! If you really want to get accountability and feel some meaningful engagement from your team, try giving them real power. Here’s a testimonial from a manager in a 70+ person radio station that we trained:
I just wanted to say that adopting the tools you trained us with has really changed how my team operates. I know others here can say the same, but specifically for my team it has been invaluable. These tools give everyone on my team a mechanism to air any issue, tension, question, frustration or idea, and the open voting ensures that the most important topics get the most time. It also helps my team hold me (the director) accountable — I can’t simply ignore issues or questions even if I wanted to (I don’t) because they can keep adding it to the agenda and keep voting it up for discussion.
Not getting stuck on issues.
With your guidance you turned what could have been, at best, a jumbled waste of time or, perhaps worse, a clash of perspectives into a constructive reorientation of the focus of the group. In my mind, that was a turning point for the productivity of our team and the success of our work.
The feeling of being stuck in one’s work with others is corrosive, especially if it’s a consistent feature of meetings. Being able to move forward even on difficult issues is like opening the windows in a stale room and letting the light and air in.
And the best part about learning all this is that you are going to be able to use these skills over and over again in all kinds of different contexts. It’s like you’ll have cracked the collaboration code and have super powers for enabling people to get along and do better work together.
Do you see how easy it is to get engaging true accountability when you know what goes into it?
It can be helpful to have a support system to lean back on. So I’d like to invite you to learn how to do this through our online democratic management and leadership course, our Level I Cooperative Leadership Certification Program. This course designed to help you integrate these kinds of tools and embody facilitative leadership.