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Most leaders would like people to take greater accountability for their work. It might be that you’re trying to delegate more, or simply want people to take ownership and show greater commitment to what they’re doing.

When people take accountability, this tends to mean that they take pride in the quality of the work that they do.

When we take pride in our work, we often spend greater discretionary effort to get the job done, rather than just doing the bare minimum. We do it not because someone tells us to – it’s because we want to do a good job.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened more often in our teams?

It’s Not as Easy as Just Telling People to Step Up

Unfortunately, you can’t just tell a team member to take greater accountability for something. Just saying it, does not make it so.

Why not?

Because for people to take accountability, there needs to be some sort of reason for them to want to take it on.

“I’m the boss, so you’ll do it” is not usually a compelling enough reason for people to step up and take accountability. This approach can work in the short term, but in the long run, you may find that this fear-led approach may backfire.

You Push Accountability Down, But You Also Need People to Step Up and Take It

I like to think of delegating accountability as a partnership. You want people to take ownership of their work, and show a greater level of commitment.

To do this, you push accountability down to the people who are appropriate for the work. But to have a partnership, they need to want to step up and take it too.

Partnership - Take Accountability

If you try to delegate accountability to people who aren’t willing to take it, you may see:

  • Tentative behaviour, where the team member may second-guess themselves, failing to take appropriate action as they lack the confidence to step up
  • A lack of proactivity, where the team member stands back and watches, instead of feeling invested in taking on the challenge; or
  • Poor performance, from a team member who isn’t really motivated or interested in stepping up and taking on the accountability offered.

This can be incredibly frustrating for leaders who want to delegate more, only to feel as if their team members aren’t capable or willing to step up and take accountability.

In my experience, this frustration comes from a simple lack of understanding of the needs of the team member.

What some leaders forget is that simply being the boss is not enough, especially in the new age of collaborative and inclusive leadership. Gone are the days of command and control.

Your team members are asking themselves an important question, and that is “What’s in it for me?”

Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #159: How to Switch From a Reactive to a Proactive Team.

Give People a Compelling Reason to Step Up and Take Accountability

For team members to take accountability, they need to have a good answer to “What’s in it for me?”

Purpose - WhyAccountability means caring about the quality of the work and that it is done on time. They need to take pride in the work, because their name is against it. Without this, they will struggle to take accountability.

So, how do you provide them with a compelling reason to care enough to take accountability? In my view, you have a few options:

  • Delegate accountability for tasks that improve the team member’s career prospects. If Cassie has aspirations of being a graphic designer, delegate accountability for the design of your team newsletter. Help people get to where they want to go, and they’ll be more likely to help you.
  • Delegate accountability for tasks that team members value, and are interested in. People will take greater pride in the work that matters the most to them.
  • Provide rewards or benefits for taking on greater accountability. If there is nothing on offer for someone to step up and take accountability, why would they bother? You need to give them a compelling reason as to why.

Some leaders think that team members should do more work simply for the good of the team. Or because they should be thankful just to have a job.

But these reasons are not compelling, and team members won’t care about them for long.

People Now Have More Options, and Are More Discerning

The thing is, people these days have options. Companies around the globe are looking for talent, with flexible and remote working providing options that never existed before.

Team members are looking to grow their careers, to do work that matters and to make a difference. Give them a compelling reason to step up and do more for you, and they’ll deliver.

I don’t think that people are necessarily more selfish or lazy than before.

They have simply seen too many examples of large organisations taking advantage of people, pushing them to the edge of burnout. They have also recently experienced a pandemic which has led many people to want more out of life.

And now that they have options, they’ll look for ways to satisfy their own needs, rather than putting the needs of the company or manager first.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #165: How to Provide Development Opportunities For Your Team.

A Lack of Confidence Can Also Prevent People From Taking Accountability

Taking accountability can be daunting. After all, by definition, people are taking on a greater level of responsibility when they agree to step up.

If team members feel they don’t have the skills or capability to succeed, they’ll resist your attempts to delegate accountability. What you may perceive as laziness or a lack of commitment, may actually be the signs of a lack of confidence.

Fear causing resistance

So be sure that you have support mechanisms in place to help your people take accountability. This might include aspects such as:

  • Training, to ensure team members have the right skills
  • Tools and resources that they need to do the job properly
  • Access to a coach, mentor or more experienced colleague who can provide support as they take the step up; and
  • Regular, open communication forums where they can ask questions, test ideas and ask for advice.

Taking greater accountability and ownership can be daunting for some team members.

That team member who you consider to be taking a back seat may just need a little more support.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #172: Team Member Lacking Confidence? Here’s How to Lead Them.

To Encourage Accountability, Help People Learn From Failure

Dealing with failure can be a tricky situation.

Imagine you’ve asked Doug to take accountability for some important work. He makes a mistake and a few things start to go wrong.

You have a few options:

  1. You step in, take charge, and fix it; or
  2. You provide guidance for Doug, but you let him work through the problems and fix them himself.

I’ve seen many leaders take the first option.

Failure Preventing People from Taking Accountability

Unfortunately, what this does is remove accountability from Doug. He was accountable, but as soon as there was trouble, someone fixed it for him. Doug is now getting the message that he wasn’t ever really accountable.

Some leaders struggle to take the second option, because they see their team’s failure as a direct reflection of themselves. As a result, they rush in to stop anything from going wrong. But in the end, accountability is diluted and the team stops learning lessons from their failures.

Where you can, resist the temptation to run in and save the day… because it might not be helping.

Learn More:  Why Exercising Restraint Is Important For Good Leadership.

Cut Out the Blame Game

An important part of failure is also learning from our mistakes.

A former colleague of mine once told me a story about how he made a huge error early in his career which had cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars due to a system failure.

His manager at the time knew his intentions weren’t malicious, and that it was an unfortunate series of events that had led to the issue.

He said something like “Consider this to have been a very expensive training course – I’m sure you’ve learned a valuable lesson”.

He certainly had, and that lesson stuck with him for his entire career.

When people feel as if they’ll be blamed for failure, they may hold back from taking accountability and greater ownership for their work.

Trying to encourage an atmosphere of continual learning is important to avoid this particular accountability trap.

To Encourage Greater Accountability, Make It Fair

take accountability - drowning in workSometimes, you’re blessed with a really enthusiastic team member. One who goes over and above, consistently. They are worth their weight in gold.

But what happens when you have others in the team who don’t pull their weight and let your high performers do all the work?

After a while, your enthusiastic team member will realise they are drowning in work, compared to other people.

And then, they’ll start to reduce their effort. Why should they keep working so hard, when others get away with doing very little?

Leaders need to make sure they try to balance workloads in the team as much as possible. If people who aren’t working hard won’t offer to help, you might need to direct them to take on more work.

If you don’t make fairness a priority in your team, your best people may refuse to take accountability. Why would they bother, when the people around them can get away with doing less?

Accountability Is a Two-Way Street

We can’t give accountability without someone who is willing to take it. And we can’t expect people to step up unless the right conditions are in place, where there is a compelling reason for them to do so.

If you find yourself frustrated that your people won’t step up and take accountability, ask yourself:

Have you put in the effort to create an environment where people are willing to step up?

What have you done to encourage people to take accountability in your team? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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