Accountability Is Not Given by DNA

“Nobody is accountable here,” Shelly told me. “I used to work in a company where people kept track of their requests and promises, and they were responsible for making sure they got what they needed and did what they said they would do.”

I’ve heard this more than once, of course: some people are just not accountable. The problem is that it makes accountability sound like it is a genetic trait: either you are accountable or you’re not. Unfortunately, the problem is not with “the people”. The problem is with the person who is complaining about a lack of accountability.

Accountability has two parts: a clear agreement (a Performance Conversation, including a due date of course) + a follow-up on the result (a Closure Conversation). Accountability does not rest with the person who makes the promise – it lives with the person who will hold the promiser to account. Apparently it’s the “holding” part that Shelly doesn’t understand.

Shelly insisted that the “holding to account” was not her job. She gave examples of the agreements she had made in the last week, telling me exactly what she said to each team member:

  • “So we have an agreement that you’ll have the Board’s statistics to me by the 24th of this month. That’s great.”
  • “Thanks for agreeing to talk with the Fiscal office about this. I’ll look to hear back from you about how it went at our staff meeting on Tuesday.”
  • “I appreciate your updating the meeting schedule with our client. Please post the new schedule on the bulletin board on Friday morning so that everyone knows, okay?”

“None of them did what they agreed,” she said. “I didn’t get the Board stats on the 24th, Chuck didn’t have the information from Fiscal in time for the staff meeting, and Sheryl didn’t post the new client schedule until the following Tuesday. They just aren’t responsible people.”

I told her what I saw was missing. Since these people are not used to being held to account, all Shelly needs to add to each of those Performance Conversations (request + promise = agreement) is one sentence that lets them know there will be closure.”

  • “If I haven’t seen those statistics on my desk by mid-day on the 24th, I will come check with you to pick them up.”
  • “I will put you on the meeting agenda as part of our Status Reporting update, so you can tell people about the Fiscal response to our proposal.”
  • “I will email everyone today to tell them they can check the new client schedule on Friday to plan their calendar for next week.”

Shelly didn’t like all those “I will” statements, but finally accepted that she was going to have to invest in building accountability in her new job. “I guess if my predecessor didn’t train her people,” she sighed, “I will have to do it.”

It’s not so hard, really. If you want a particular result, it is important to make it clear by when you want to see it, and find a way to emphasize that it’s important that you see it completed. If I know you’ll come to my office to get something, or that I’m on your meeting agenda, or that people need information to plan their schedules, I will be more aware of how important timeliness is in my assignment. Otherwise, I am likely to think the assignment is just “business as usual” – and if business has usually been sloppy, I might be too.

Accountability is built by your conversations and the actions that make agreements real. You can build it anywhere you choose if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone just a bit.

1 reply
  1. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    PS – Shelly said this worked, and people are delivering what they promise almost every time now. She also reports that “They seem more engaged at work now. At least our staff meetings seem livelier and somebody cleared the outdated stuff off the bulletin board.”

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