Accountability (2 of 3): How is it Achieved?

This is the second in a series of 3 articles dealing with Accountability.  The first article Accountability: What Does it Really Mean I noted how the real meaning of accountability has been hijacked and replaced with a simplistic emphasis on recording delivery dates, and I proposed that real accountability has more to do with the quality of the dialog between people.

This article keys in on this dialog and lays out four specific tactics for how accountability is actually achieved.

While most everyone acknowledges that accountability is a good thing and want more of it, most people really do not know how to get more.  All too often we fool ourselves into thinking we have more of it by emphasizing the other roots of the word – counting and accounting – which leads one to pursuit of monitored assigned due dates.

Below are recommendations for building real accountability:

  • Begin a conversation, not a delegation. The proper start to a conversation that results in real accountability is a request (e.g. Can you get this done by June 1st?).  The requestor / manager assumes the persona of a customer instead of “lord and master”.  The requester begins with a different tone of voice, and acknowledges that the performer is already working on other tasks.  The phrase “Will you please…” gets someone ready for a response; the phrase “You need to…” raises hackles.  Having started the conversation with a question, instead of a statement, the requester must then wait for an answer before proceeding.  A measure of control is relinquished over to the performer.  It’s a dialog after all, not a monologue.
  • Acknowledge mutual dependency and build partnership. There is no accountability without negotiation.  The performer must answer including sharing their capabilities and concerns regarding the request.  Commitments that evidence real accountability involve a level of disclosure, and indeed intimacy, that is typically not present when just assigning tasks.  Most managers assign tasks and expect accountability to follow along as part and parcel of the assignment.  In effect, they are saying “I am assigning you this task and am holding you (the performer) accountable for getting it done on time”.  This is a one-way statement, not a dialog.  The performer has not actually “answered”.  The performer has made no personal, nor public ownership of the task.  The manager has created a workflow / action and expects tacit acknowledgement and agreement.  In a subtle sense, the accountability for completion of the task still rests with the manager who then must spend his time closely following up the assignment.  In order to accept accountability, the performer must be afforded the opportunity to negotiate, or even to decline, the request.
  • Shift accountability squarely to the performer. The result of a proper dialog should be an explicit agreement, a specific commitment by the performer to satisfy the requester’s concern by a certain due date.  In so doing, the performer [willingly] takes on the accountability for timely and successful delivery of the request.  And having done so, it is now the performer’s responsibility, not the manager’s, to closely track and follow up the task. The ownership of the task has shifted to the performer.  Of course, the manager / requester is still concerned with an on-time delivery, but rather than relying on frequent reviews of task due dates and the weekly “how’s it going” query of each performer, the manager now relies on the performer’s ownership of the task to prompt update reports.  If the delivery is on track, the manager need not ask.  If the delivery is threatened, the manager relies on prompt notice of a problem by the responsible performer.  The key is to shift the dialog from the requestor saying “I am holding you accountable” to the performer saying  “you can count on me”.  Underpinning all of this is the notion of trust, which leads to the next practice.
  • Provide metrics that support reputation and trust building. Accountability and trust go hand in hand.  Trust is the soft underbelly of accountability. [Note: See the related article on Trust.]  The greater the amount of trust, the greater is the shift of accountability to the performer.  Requestors who have low trust that the task will be delivered on time spend a considerable amount of time monitoring and following up many times during delivery.  Those with a high level of trust will spend relatively little time following up, and will instead rely on the trusted performer to alert them if and when concerns arise.  There is also a virtuous cycle of trust – those you trust are monitored less closely, their confidence builds, they feel more empowered, they perform better and earn more trust.

Trust is built up over time.  Repeated performance builds a reputation.  Both the requestor and the performer need to have specific historical records that are shared so that trust can be built and maintained using actual documented records.  The record keeping that is most helpful is historical delivery patterns such as percent of on-time deliveries over the past year.  Reports like this are surprisingly rare in today’s performance conscious work world.

The next article in this series talks about how accountability is actually shared between the requester and the performer.

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