We are big talkers when it comes to the topic of accountability. When I lead workshops for management teams, I often hear people say things like, “We have to hold people accountable” or “The problem is there’s no accountability in this office.”
It’s not at all uncommon for employees to say to me that the biggest problem on the team is that the leader doesn’t hold people accountable. And by that, they mean the other employees—not themselves. Accountability is the new panacea for all that’s wrong with both morale and productivity.
However, when it comes to enforcing accountability, we often overlook one very subtle fact: accountability is really about one’s willingness to submit to accountability. In fact, it is much more about this than it is about the leader’s ability to enforce accountability. That’s not to say that policies and regulations are optional. Of course they are not. However, I’ve noticed that accountability issues within a team are not usually about the black and white issues. They usually fall into the gray areas, where it’s much more difficult. In the gray areas, you have to make a judgment call, and it is here where the frustrations about accountability multiply.
In the gray areas, when a supervisor tries to hold an employee accountable, it’s often about attitude, intent, teamwork, effort, intangibles, and relationships. Employees unwilling to accept accountability find many loopholes and shadows to run to in the gray. Supervisors feel the frustration and sometimes hear the criticism from others who watch. These critics have not yet learned that it is easier said than done.
However, if an employee wants to be accountable, not just to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the team’s goals, then it is a completely different story. The matter of accountability rarely even comes up with this person, and when it does, he/she usually goes the extra mile and strives to make up for it when a mistake is made. Why? Because this employee is committed to the team’s goals, and his/her own success is tied up with the team’s success.
The obvious solution is to hire team players in the first place. The more difficult solution is to discover why that employee does not want to be held accountable. In some cases, it may be simply because of his/her lack of maturity. However, a wise supervisor will also examine another possibility.
The deeper issue is does the team have a set of shared goals to which it can hold itself accountable? This requires both healthy relationships within the team, and a process that creates a sense of ownership in the team’s goals.
Accountability is not just about enforcing the rules. It starts before that and goes much deeper. That’s why it’s easy to talk boldly about it, yet never make much progress in achieving it. If we really want improved accountability, though, it starts with improving our processes.