Accountability is a word that echoes through the halls of every thriving organization—yet it's a concept frequently misunderstood and rarely implemented effectively. Leaders say, “If only people around here were more accountable for results.” Meanwhile, the people who work for them gripe, “Managers don’t hold people accountable here.” Far from being a tool for blame—that sort of accountability is threatening and counterproductive—supportive accountability is a cornerstone of a successful work environment, and will lead to a culture of integrity, empowerment, and exceptional results.
Accountability vs. Blame: A Critical Distinction
First, let’s define what accountability is and isn’t. When accountability becomes synonymous with punishment, it fosters an atmosphere of fear and diminishes morale. When you hear people say, “Someone needs to be held accountable,” what they likely really mean is, “Someone needs to be fired”.
That sort of accountability leads to demeaning feedback that undermines people’s sense of pride in their work. Recent studies show that performance reviews that focus principally on blame for performance problems demotivate people and cause productivity to suffer for months. (No wonder some team members dread reviews and many managers avoid doing them!)
The Self-Accountability Paradox
Meanwhile, while it's easy to spot a lack of accountability in others, it's often challenging to recognize in ourselves. This blind spot can lead to broken commitments—not out of malice, but simple forgetfulness. We all say yes to lots of things without writing them down or tracking whether we followed through or not. We agree to do things and don’t follow through simply because we forgot, and are oblivious to the fact that we broke our word.
Let's break down accountability into a more productive definition. Accountability comes from account: It's all about tracking what we promise to do versus what results we actually achieve. At work, it’s like a scorecard that shows how well we’re playing the game, using key performance indicators (KPIs) to see how good we are at our jobs.
Accountability should be clear-cut and fair, absent of any judgment.
Empowering Accountability with Aspirational Purpose
When leaders help people to identify and aim toward an aspirational purpose in their work, those people are more likely to own their responsibilities. People get fired up to deliver on promises when the goals matter to them personally, and they’ve got the right backing. Managing this way is empowering!
On the flip side, expecting results without clear promises can really demoralize. It’s like setting them up to fail. But when you get someone to agree willingly to a goal and then help them stick to it, that's where the magic happens.
Celebrating Success: The Heart of Supportive Accountability
It's crucial to celebrate the victories. For leaders, emphasizing the positive is not just a nice-to-have; it's a strategic tool for inspiring continued excellence. We all have our wins and misses, and it's key to give a high-five for the wins while also not ignoring the areas we need to level up in. We're often our own toughest critics, zooming in on where we fall short. That’s where a good leader steps in – to shine a light on the victories, because let’s face it, winning feels good and leads to more wins. Keep that success train moving!
10 Steps for Implementing Supportive Accountability
Be rigorous about your personal integrity. In all things, do what you say you will do. When you “give” your word, honor the agreement.
Be on time—or early—for all meetings as a demonstration of integrity.
Make requests of people. Gain their promise—but make sure they have permission to say No.
Follow up with people to support them in honoring their promises to you. Doing so before a deadline provides a friendly and supportive reminder that builds a collaborative relationship. Doing so after the deadline lets people know you are paying attention and care about supporting them.
Use a personal management system such as Outlook Tasks or Google Tasks to keep track of the promises you make to others and the promises others make to you.
Recognize people for good performance at the time it happens.
Recognize people for poor performance at the time it happens.
Create Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for every person’s inspirational sub-purpose. Be sure to make them stretch targets, not easy-to-obtain targets. Review them with people regularly.
Create a dashboard of the most important KPIs.
Meet regularly to review the dashboard. This is a fantastic way to generate supportive coaching.
The Journey to a Culture of Integrity
Supportive accountability isn't just a concept; it's a cultural shift that requires dedication and action. In a workplace where integrity is king, everyone's like a reliable partner—they make a promise, and they stick to it. Accountability is the secret sauce here; as leaders, it’s about making sure we’re not just talk. When a company is built on this trust, it's unstoppable. Integrity is what keeps the whole thing strong. It's the unsung hero of every successful team.