Most people who have experience in high-performing teams know the difference between being responsible for something and feeling really accountable for it.

For business, accountability improves performance and gives high job satisfaction across the board — in terms of the environment that leaders are trying to create, it ticks all of the boxes. True accountability is elusive though.  Much of our effort is channeled into trying to make people accountable when realistically, you can’t.

Traditional models of accountability typically rely on leaders changing their employees so that they become different beasts: employees that are accountable. More contemporary theories build on this, but are often reliant on punitive consequence to force change.

These approaches can give some insights but they miss a fundamental premise: most people want to do the right thing. They want to engage in their lives in meaningful ways, they want to affect the world around them and they want to add value to their work environments. People are predisposed to being accountable.

So why is accountability still so elusive?

Those that have experienced it will know that accountability is different from responsibility. A person can be made responsible for all sorts of things but that is different from feeling truly accountable. The word ’feeling’ is a critical one.

The thing that sets accountability apart and makes it difficult to create, is the emotion it represents. It is a positive emotion, and there are very few positive emotions we can force people to experience. What we can do, and do often in service fields for our customers, is to set the conditions for a positive experience and allow it to then develop and grow.  The same approach is needed for accountability.

To feel accountable, people need to be able to affect their outcomes. If they are impeded, or subject to influences outside of their control, then sooner or later a person will naturally become disassociated.  People need visibility and control to affect their outcomes.

Visibility

The person you want to feel accountable needs to be able to see the system they are running and understand how it responds to changes.  If you were tasked to drive home safely from work but the windscreen of your car was blackened, it would be difficult to feel accountable for the outcome.

Clearly visible business metrics and understanding down to transactional levels are often not constructed or available. KPIs can get translated into ‘what I need to report’ rather than being able to take a person through a data—information—knowledge—understanding—decision—action cycle.  Complex and uncertain elements can be integrated in results, and their effect not considered appropriately.

Taking control

The system also has to be controllable in some way; you need levers that can be pulled to adjust the outcome. If you are driving your car home again, but this time with no accelerator or steering wheel, you are still unlikely to feel accountable for the outcome.

This is a very subtle area and there are a lot of things that can get in the way. Corporate standards, cultural norms, risk-averse management, critically limiting delegations of authority, overlapping areas of responsibility, onerous technical verifications, industrial relations constraints, geography, skill sets and competencies — all cloud the authority to pull the levers.

How to create the conditions for accountability

Conditions for accountability should be designed for each individual, and implemented so that their overlap with others is clear, understandable and separable.  Look at the outcomes required and any natural boundaries such as specialisation, geography or customer base. Understand that there may not be a perfect separation, but look for the highest benefit first and work down the list.

Think through the mechanisms of each accountable area, search for the critical processes, and map KPIs appropriately.  Provide support networks and forums to solve problems together.

Look at organisational structures, delegations of authority, skillset assessment and training, even seating positions to support the natural alignment trying to be achieved.  Find the gaps and work them through for each role, clarifying the situation each time conflict arises.

Try to create a naturally aligned system.  These systems are self-modulating and will enable supportive teaming that delivers consistent, high quality outcomes.

Consequences and their appropriate use

The consequence of failing for any team is usually pretty clear.  A missed target, a loss of business, fewer opportunities, disappointment.  These are the natural consequences of life and people are attuned to them.

Introducing additional consequence to accountability efforts should be done carefully. They are better used as an augmentation and can provide value if enacted at the right point – when results are realised. If the introduced consequences are positive you will actively add to the feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing a good job and that can feed the natural reward system.  But it has to be fair.

The most effective approach is to work with each member of your team and help them fulfil their potential, to meet their accountabilities as they grow in the conditions you have created. Work with the value system of individuals, and help support the natural alignment of process and authority. If you are able to generate a compelling vision that fosters belief in the effort, then this alone helps individuals and teams to become self regulating.  They understand the effect of failure and strive to avoid the collective consequence of it.  They become a truly accountable contributor.

Author: Jon Jordans

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