Accountability. Everybody talks about it, but few really practice it. In its purest form, accountability is a contract to carry out a specific responsibility, and if the responsibility is time-sensitive, to carry it out within a specific time frame. The problem is, for many people, accountability isn’t viewed as a contract, but more of a guideline . . . a casual sort of thing. When someone is asked to take on a responsibility, their mindset may be, “I acknowledge what you want and when you want it, but I’ve got a lot of other stuff to do, so no promises. OK?” In other words, in some organizations, holding someone accountable may mean getting their good intentions, not necessarily their full commitment. It’s a cultural thing. If it’s true that “your culture is defined by what you tolerate,” then what sort of accountability do you tolerate? Real commitments or just good intentions? For more on this, please continue reading below.
Everyone is accountable.
In the U.S. Navy, ship captains understand accountability very well because for them, being accountable is absolute. A ship’s captain is fully responsible and accountable for everything that happens on (or to) his ship 24/7. Whether the captain is on the ship or ashore, awake or asleep, or the victim of an Act of God, it doesn’t matter. He is responsible for the well-being and the performance of his ship and crew regardless of the circumstances.
We don’t often find civilian organizations that hold accountability to that high a standard, but maybe they should. What would it feel like, for instance, to ask someone on your team to complete a certain task by a certain time and date, and be absolutely 100% confident that it would be done correctly and on time? What if everyone on your team held themselves to that level of accountability? What if everyone in your entire organization practiced that level of accountability, not just between superiors and subordinates, but to one another, to customers, and to suppliers as well What if it were a cultural norm at your place that when any one of us accepts responsibility for doing something, it’s as good as done. You can take it to the bank.
So how do you infuse that level of accountability into an organization?
- Good communication is a key. People need to understand what being accountable truly means, why it’s important to the organization, and most importantly, what it looks like when it’s being practiced appropriately.
- Consistency is crucial. We can’t hold people accountable one day and give them a pass the following day. And we have to hold people accountable for things big and small . . . not only to bring a big project in on time and on budget, but also to be prepared and on time to the weekly staff meeting.
- Get agreement up front. When you’re asking someone to do something, make sure they agree that they can do what’s being asked. If they don’t, you may have to do a little negotiating . . . either reducing the scope of the project, or allowing more time for its completion.
- Make it clear to the person receiving an assignment that you want to operate by the Doctrine of No Surprises. Acknowledge that unforeseen situations can arise that might prevent a task from being completed as planned, and that’s OK as long as the bad news is communicated in a timely manner. What’s not OK is to wait until the project is already late before saying anything about it. If you’re not comfortable with that level of oversight, you can ask for regular progress reports to make sure projects are on track.
We’re all human, so from time-to-time, we may fail in some of our commitments. We’re not suggesting a public flogging every time someone slips up, but nor can we just ignore such lapses. So simply acknowledge the slip up, re-commit to the principles of accountability, and move on.
This may seem like a big undertaking, and it is . . . in the beginning, at least. But in the end, a willingness to hold yourself and others accountable becomes a habit and an intrinsic part of your culture. At that point, it builds tremendous trust throughout the organization and beyond . . . trust that our word is our bond, that we keep our promises, and that we honor our commitments.