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Preventing the gap is even better than minding the gap!
February 17, 2024   |  Articles

Preventing the Accountability Gap – Accountability as a Process

How often have you heard a leader bemoaning how hard it is to “hold” someone “accountable”?  How often have you been that leader? 

What if I told you that I had a silver bullet solution that would make accountability concerns a thing of the past?  

Hopefully, you wouldn’t believe me!  Accountability is definitely a Tricksy Word and it is highly unlikely that any suggestions that would fit in an article could provide a universal panacea. However, I do think that most people could use a reset in how they think about accountability and I have a few tweaks that could dramatically reduce the number of times “accountability” pops up as a pain point.

Accountability is NOT…

If you happened to read the title of this article, you have a sneak preview of how I am going to suggest that you approach accountability but before we get there, I wanted to address the ways that accountability is more traditionally talked about. Most often, I see accountability referenced as a decision or action that happens in a particular snapshot of time. I hear leaders saying things like “I wish they would step up and take accountability for their actions” or “no one took accountability for the error”. 

So, let me be very clear about my thoughts on accountability. Accountability is NOT a moment.  It is NOT an action.  It is NOT a single decision.

Accountability is more than that – accountability is a process.

Ok, tell me more about this “process”

Rather than happening in a moment, I see accountability spanning three distinct phases:

  1. Setting expectations around ownership, authority, and escalations
  2. Decision making and action (this may indeed be a moment!)
  3. Tracking consequences and follow through

You may already see that accountability as traditionally defined falls almost entirely into what I see only as Step 2. By then, it may be too late for effective accountability to actually take place! And if there is no “Step 3”, the behaviors that are leading to concerns and complaints are highly unlikely to change.

Wait, doesn’t the title say you are going to talk about “prevention”

If you follow me and my work, you may have already guessed that most of my focus is going to be on Step 1 – Setting expectations around ownership, authority, and escalations. When I really dig into complaints about lack of accountability, I find that they tend to fall into a few categories that each offer insights into how Step 1 might have prevented the issue in the first place.

That wasn’t my job

Without clearly defined areas of ownership, a team is likely to be full of “accountability” gaps. When each person develops their own understanding of their area of responsibility, there are likely to be overlaps and gaps. Those gaps in ownership then manifest as gaps in accountability because no one is going to notice the ownership gap while everything is going well. Of course, by the time there is an accountability issue to discuss, it can be difficult to remedy the situation because the leader and the employee are having two different conversations. The leader is frustrated that the employee failed to “do their job” and the employee is frustrated that they are being held accountable for something they believed was outside of their role.

I couldn’t have done that anyway

This is actually closely related to the “not my job” scenario but with a small nuance where team members give up on a task or project because they find that they lack the authority or resources to complete it. When there is close alignment around priorities and ownership, these moments are more likely to lead to a conversation or request for support but the problems arise when the activity simply fades into the background. Ensuring that everyone has what they need to at least have the possibility of success can avoid many of these frustrating moments.

I was handling it

These are the situations where a leader wishes that their team member had come to them for help, or come for help sooner, but the team member persisted alone. Many workplace cultures glorify individuals who single-handedly overcome great challenges and certainly that seems reasonable. What a hero that person must have been! But what if the entire issue could have been handled quickly and efficiently with one small ask for help? There would have been a lot less glory but also a lot less mess – and a lower chance of failure. Discussing the ideal balance between persistence and assistance before challenges arise can be tricky but will pay dividends down the line.

Oops

Of course, sometimes there really is a moment where an individual chooses or acts against the expectations that have been agreed upon ahead of time. This is where all of the current literature around accountability is super strong! These are the situations where traditional accountability processes come into play. This is also your opportunity to reflect and respond so that the same issues will be avoided in the future. 

So what do I do now?

This is a great opportunity to do a quick check in with your team members. Are you all on the same page about everyone’s roles, responsibilities, and decision making authority? Does everyone know what the top priorities are and are there regular conversations about what is falling off of everyone’s plates, even if those items are lower priority? Have you talked through when you would want each of your team members to escalate an issue or ask for help?

If the answer to all of the above is “yes” and you are still struggling with accountability issues, this is also a great opportunity to reflect on the consequences of team members refusing to take accountability. If there are no consequences, why would the employee do anything different in the future?

Of course, if you want to talk more deeply about how your organization’s roles and responsibilities are structured, how authority is discussed and allocated, and the guidelines you have in place around escalations, reach out! Accountability gaps are largely preventable, and I would love to see accountability become a buzzword of the past in 2024!

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