Accountability is critical for the functioning of any team. Without accountability, there is nobody to take ownership and ensure work is completed successfully. A leader should be held accountable for a team’s overall performance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is the only accountable person in the team.
There’s a reason why organisations often have one or more layers of management. You don’t have Marketing, Human Resources, Sales and Operations Managers just for fun. You have these roles so that specialist leaders can be accountable for teams that deliver services within their particular domain.
How do I know when I need to improve accountability in my team?
One mistake some leaders make is that they feel they need to be the only accountable person. This doesn’t always need to be the case. There are a few telltale signs that show you could benefit from improving accountability in your team.
Improve accountability when you don’t know the technical details
If you are a leader who doesn’t know the technical details of the work being done, that isn’t always a problem. Some of the best leaders are those who can abstract themselves from the detail and be more strategic.
However, when you don’t know the details of the work, you may need to improve accountability by delegating to a specific person to take charge of the technical aspects. You are giving them accountability for overseeing the technical work, because they are best placed to understand it.
Improve accountability when there are too many people involved
Sometimes there will be too many cooks in your team. Everyone will want to have an opinion and before you know it, you will need to facilitate decision making as discussions reach a standstill.
Discussions may reach deadlock when team members can’t agree and they all have the same level of authority. This means that nobody can make the call and you may need to step in to resolve the situation. However, this can be time consuming. Why not instead delegate accountability to somebody who is better placed to make the call in your team?
Improve accountability when your team isn’t performing as well as you’d like
If things aren’t progressing quite the way you’d like them to in your team, it may be time to improve accountability. Accountability gives people a greater sense of ownership over the work being performed. This may be done by delegating accountability for specialist functions within your team to team members to take charge of.
When someone feels greater responsibility for an outcome, feelings of personal pride may kick in, enticing team members to care more about the quality of the work they do. This can be observed by higher levels of motivation, enthusiasm and greater commitment to the work at hand.
How to improve accountability in your team
I like to think of accountability this way:
When everybody is accountable, nobody is accountable.
What I mean by this is that when you fail to delegate specific accountability for a task to an individual, nobody really has ownership.
Consider team leadership, for example. It’s rare to have multiple leaders for a team. Most of the time you have a single leader or manager who is the accountable person. There are self-managing teams, but even these have the drawback that personal relationships can overwhelm good judgement, because there is no clear hierarchical authority.
When “we are all accountable”, ownership of the task is diluted and nobody feels responsible. This is why it’s extremely important to be specific when delegating accountability. What you don’t want is a situation where team members say “I thought (another person) was doing it!”
To improve accountability, limit the scope to a single person
“Bob, you are accountable for making sure the letters are sent on time.”
This tells Bob that he is the one in charge of this activity. When things happen that may prevent the letters being sent, Bob feels empowered to act to fix it, because he knows he’s the only one who is responsible for this. In other words, if Bob doesn’t do it, nobody is going to.
To improve accountability, be clear on your expectations
“Kathy, you are accountable for ensuring that the presentation of the report is of a high level of quality”.
This sounds great, but is subjective. What do you mean by “high level of quality”? It would be better to be more specific. In this example, you might say that there should be no spelling mistakes, no blurred graphics, consistent font sizes and all sources are referenced properly.
OK, this may be straying towards micromanagement, telling somebody exactly how to do their job, but you get the idea. The more clear your expectations are, the more likely that there will be less confusion about what is required.
To improve accountability, communicate ownership widely
If Bob is accountable for making sure the letters are sent on time, make sure everybody in the team knows that. Otherwise, when Bob starts to ask people about the letters and ensure there are no problems with them, people may start to think “who made Bob the boss?”
Clearly stating who is accountable for activities within a team is critical. Everybody then understands the situation and everybody is on the same page. When people know their role, there is less uncertainty and less potential for confusion.
The worst thing you can do is tell Bob he’s accountable for the letters, but fail to tell anybody else. Bob will be running around thinking he has authority for this, but nobody else will. This is a common mistake that people-pleasing leaders make.
People-pleasing leaders will tell Bob he is accountable. Bob feels happy. People-pleasing leaders will not tell anyone else that Bob is accountable because this may make them feel less important and upset them. Bob is going to be in for an unhappy time, because nobody will necessarily listen to him.
To improve accountability, formalise it
If the improved accountability that you are looking for is a permanent arrangement, be sure to include it in performance plans, or whatever performance assessment structure you use. In other words, make it formal.
Formalising accountability increases ownership, and also allows you to recognise team members for the additional responsibility they take on. It also enables them to add the role to their CV for future positions. This can be motivational and satisfying for team members, because they feel they are developing their skills and taking on more responsibility.
To improve accountability, follow up and hold people to it
If you introduce accountability into an accountability black hole, your team will take a while to get used to it. That’s why it’s important to follow up on the tasks that people are accountable for. If they’re not done, ask for reasons.
Explain clearly to the person that when they committed to getting the task done, they were accountable. Sometimes you need to instil a little discomfort in your team so that they know these things matter, and you’re serious. You don’t want to become a tyrant, but it needs to be clear that accountability means something.
Accountability is critical for the functioning of any team. Teams will sometimes shy away from it, because it can make them feel exposed. However, once accountability is clear, embedded in performance plans and communicated widely, it should improve the operation of your team.
Whatever you do, don’t dilute accountability for important tasks by saying “we are all accountable”. This is a sure way to make people feel that nobody is accountable.