How To Build A Culture Of Accountability

Accountability is one of the biggest stressors we see leaders struggling with, from first-time managers to CEOs. Being a leader means getting results through other people, so how do you make sure your people are responsible and held accountable for their results, so you can be accountable for yours? 

In other words, how do you maintain the right level of involvement? Accountability falls apart often because of the absentee-manager who assigns a project and flees the scene until the day it’s due (or something like that).  On the other hand, no one likes a babysitter, AKA, a micromanager. So, how do you build a culture of accountability?  

Time and time again we hear from leaders’ direct reports that they want to feel empowered. They want their leaders to step back, and do away with those daily meetings masquerading as check-ins, because in reality, they’re just a way for you to tell them what to do. No, that’s not accountability. Having your finger on the pulse is important, but so is instilling a sense of freedom, trust, and confidence in your team.

You might ask, how do I give them the sense of freedom without telling them exactly how I want it done and by when, when it’s my ass on the line?!

With, expectations, my fine friend. There can be no accountability without clearly defined, agreed-upon expectations. Without these specific goals (you might even say, SMART goals), it’s no wonder you have to keep coming back to your team, and they have to keep coming back to you. Does your team know what it looks like to knock the project out of the park? To deliver excellence? This doesn’t mean you need to set a two-year plan and let them at it. Building in shorter term deadlines within a larger goal allows you to know the project/deliverable/etc. is going well, while still giving your team the space to work.

At each check-in, you have the ability to review progress, re-set or tweak the agenda as needed, provide praise when they’ve exceeded expectations, and set new goals if necessary. These check-ins also give you the opportunity to practice the art of the kick-back, another essential piece of the puzzle in building your culture of accountability. There will likely be a time (let’s be honest, more than one time) when your team doesn’t quite meet expectations, or they have not delivered the caliber of work you need. Don’t accept it and quietly but angrily edit until the early hours. Reiterate what it is you need from them, coach and provide the tools for them to execute on their own, and then hand it back.

This shows your team (walking the walk, rather than talking the talk) that you are holding them to the goals you set out, and this “accountability thing” wasn’t just the latest buzzword to come out of the board of directors’ last meeting. This also lets your team take ownership, and that kind of buy-in is sometimes the difference between an engaged or disengaged employee. In order for this to really work, though, you must use it as a feedback and development opportunity: find out why they couldn’t deliver what was agreed on in the first place and make sure they have what’s needed to do better and grow.

This simple and iterative process of setting expectations, checking progress, providing feedback, and starting again is what it means to not only hold your team accountable, but to build a culture of accountability. This kind of culture leads to greater trust within teams which is one of the most common threads in high-functioning executive teams. This also builds in the kind of coaching and progress for individuals that means the more you hold them accountable, the more responsibility they can grow into.

The truth about accountability is that if you’re not holding people accountable, this has the potential to be the silver bullet for your team, bringing you to the next level you’ve wanted to reach but, until now, has been elusive. The other—and perhaps more important—truth about accountability at work is that it’s something to be worked at. It takes consistency. So you should probably get going.