Why another book on accountability? Quite simply because what’s been written, isn’t working. People at work just aren’t all that accountable. Study after study has shown that managers aren’t holding others accountable1, they don’t know how to hold others accountable2, they aren’t able to hold others accountable3 or managers and employees are avoiding accountability for fear of the consequences should they fail.4 In fact, one study showed that one in five respondents indicated that 30% to 50% of their employees simply
weren’t accountable.5 That’s a lot of bad apples in the barrel.
There are plenty of books on the topic of accountability offering good advice, but their solutions only address one or two factors associated with the problem of employee accountability. I’ve spent the last two years actively engaged in researching accountability. That work surfaced over 45 factors that influence accountability in organizations. These factors can be grouped into: organizational factors, leadership factors, team or department factors, and individual factors. Obviously, to improve accountability all or most of the factors within each group should be addressed and resolved.
Increasing accountability is a daunting task, but it doesn’t require any new processes, technology, or significant costs. It will take time and time is a cost, but most improvement projects require time. In this case, the return on invested time will result in significant increases in productivity quality, employee engagement and commitment. This book offers a new accountability model. Instead of focusing results and finding whose to blame for failure, this new take on accountability emphasizes learning and improving thought processes, communication, and collaboration.
Part One introduces the major factors influencing accountability in organizations, some of the more popular approaches to accountability, and introduces the new accountability paradigm. Part Two offers a new definition of accountability and how it differs from and is related to responsibility and commitment. Part Three introduces the new accountability model with its emphasis on learning and involvement. Part Four presents actions executives, managers, team leaders, and team members can take to address the factors influencing accountability and use the new model to increase collaboration, productivity, and intellectual capital. The Appendix includes some helpful forms for applying the new accountability model within your organization.
Many people, at work, think of accountability as something that happens to someone, after things go wrong. The phrase, “someone needs to be held accountable” is often interpreted as someone needs to be the person to whom blame or fault can be attributed. There is usually a negative consequence for such failure, a reprimand, chastisement, or even termination. Unfortunately, a large percentage of projects are unsuccessful. Research conducted by the Institute of Project Management, on the success and failure rate of projects within organizations, found that somewhere between 30% and 60% of the projects studied failed to deliver the targeted outcomes, meet budget requirements, or deliver the improved results they were created to resolve.6
On the other hand, feedback for successful projects is not very common. A Partners in Leadership study (2014) revealed that 80% of respondents only received feedback when things go wrong.7 They heard nothing when things went well. Try this little exercise. It’s 3:00pm on a Friday afternoon. You are in the hallway when your boss spots you and heads over to you. She’s in a hurry and asks you to meet her in her office at 4:30. “I want to talk about your project.” She doesn’t have time to say anything more. What’s going through your mind? Take time to write your thoughts on a piece of paper.
I have given this scenario to thousands of managers in leadership workshops for over twenty years. The results have remained constant over time. Not knowing anything more than the boss wanted to meet with them to discuss their project, over 90% of the workshop participants assumed something was wrong.
I was given this little scenario way back in 1979 during a workshop with Ken Blanchard. Like most of the others in my group and most of the people in the workshops I conduct, I anticipated the worst. Why? Because I felt I my work was poor? No, I knew I did good work. It was because, like most people, the large majority of the time you meet with a boss it’s because something went wrong.
With relatively high failure rates of projects and the negative consequences associated with failure, it’s not surprising that people are avoiding responsibility and accountability. How often have you heard the word “accountability” associated for a success?
Before getting too deeply into accountability, it’s necessary to define what it is. There are a lot of writers who use the term to mean anything from responsibility, to motivation to
ownership, obligation and more. While these terms are related to accountability, they are not accountability. Let’s look at some of the more popular definitions of accountability.
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.
Business Dictionary (online): The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.
Vocabulary.com: Accepting responsibility and accountability for acts and behaviors. Taking accountability means admitting mistakes. Accountability shows ownership and a willingness to admit mistakes.
Cambridge Dictionary: Responsible for and having to explain actions.
Partners in Leadership: Subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.
Research Definition: Accountability refers to an implicit or explicit expectation that one’s decisions or actions will be subject to evaluation by some salient audience(s) (including self) with the belief that there exists the potential for one to receive either rewards or sanctions based on this expected evaluation. (Angela Hall, xxxx)
The following definition of accountability and explanations are used for the purposes of this book:
Accountability is the evaluation of results, planning, actions, and outcomes of a project or task assigned to or taken on by an individual who is responsible for the successful
completion of the task or project.
This evaluation may be conducted by one or more others, or may be done by the individual himself or herself.
The individual is obligated to be honest, forthright, and transparent in his or her explanations and justifications.
Responsibility: It is assumed that the person to whom the task/project is assigned has appropriate: skills, knowledge, experience, authority, support, and resources to plan and implement the task. It is incumbent upon the person delegating the task to clearly articulate the expected outcomes, how the task relates to the organization’s goals/strategies, checkpoints, and ultimate due date for completion of the task.
Actions: The person who assigned the task/project is expected to check-in periodically to assess progress and offer assistance as needed. This is vitally important at the outset of the project, when the responsible person is engaged in planning.
Results: Results should be monitored periodically, not simply at the end or near the end of the project. Adjustments to plans and actions should be made accordingly. The responsible
needs to keep abreast of progress and advise the person delegating the task of any variations to expectations, positive or negative.
Accountability: Accountability typically takes the form of a meeting where the responsible person is required to explain what happened and why the outcomes were as they were. This meeting is referred to as “the accountability session.”
It is vitally important to be aware of the difference between responsibility and accountability. Responsibility occurs when the task/project is assigned. There may be an implicit or explicit expectation that the person responsible for completing the project will be held accountable for its outcomes at different times during or at the completion of the project.
Keep in mind that accountability is the “evaluation of results, planning, actions, and outcomes of a project.” It’s impossible to evaluate results or anything else when the project is assigned. Something must happen and some sort of outcome or results must be manifested before anything can be evaluated. Making someone responsible does not mean that person will be accountable.
Accountability is basically explaining, or justifying, actions and results to someone. There are several factors that influence how the accountable person explains or justifies what
happened. For example, if the accountable person is
The extent to which a person is honest or straightforward in explaining his or her actions to the salient others is a choice. There are many factors that
An implicit expectation is a “felt” accountability that arises from personal feelings of obligation, reciprocity, or commitment to others, especially a salient other. For example, a spouse is expected to remember the birthday of the other or the anniversary of their wedding. It’s an “unspoken” expectation that “feels” like an obligation. An example of reciprocity and how it differs from a felt obligation associated with accountability may be helpful.
Two very good friends are out on a business lunch. One of them happily pays for both lunches. When the other friend offers to pay for his or her lunch the person who paid says: “Don’t worry about it. It’s my treat.” The other will say something like: “Thank you, I’ll get the next one.” If the friend who bought the lunch never expects to be repaid or never mentions it, the person who received the lunch is not accountable. There was no expectation of repayment. The guest may feel the need to reciprocate, but he or she is not accountable to do so.
Accountability can be confusing. To make understanding it easier, this document focuses on explicit accountability. That’s the accountability that exists when someone or a group is formally charged with a task, a job, a project, etc. and expected to explain or justify the results of their efforts.