A truly world-class organization has a performance imperative—a clear culture of individual accountability. A true culture of accountability is one that rigorously demands accountability from individuals at every level of the company. It’s not enough for certain teams or departments to have this culture while others do not. For an organization to perform to its full potential, every employee must feel personally accountable for their work and consistently deliver on their commitments.
When an organization lacks the individual and group accountability needed to achieve the desired outcomes, it’s your leaders who are the solution. Leaders set and deliver the vision to their employees in a way that not only explains why it's important, but how they can contribute to it as individuals. Like any other organizational standard, if personal accountability is the expectation, leadership must model it themselves. Without this commitment from leadership, it’s unreasonable to expect that others will hold themselves personally accountable for their work.
The Gap Between Intention and Results
What is personal accountability? It is a commitment to following through on what was agreed upon—or, put simply, personal accountability is doing what you say you are going to do. Personal accountability goes hand in hand with trust; when people follow through on their commitments, they show themselves to be trustworthy. Likewise, when leaders show trust, people are more likely to want to live up to that trust.
Most people don’t intend to drop the ball or let their leaders down when they commit to something. In fact, most people approach their commitments in the workplace with the intent to follow through, and why wouldn’t they? It feels good to succeed. However, slipping deadlines and a growing list of tasks that just never seem to get done are all too common.
This scenario, where intentions are not translating into results, is a familiar one. There may be seemingly good reasons for this—competing priorities, a lack of motivation, an intense workload, and so on— but ultimately, it comes down to personal accountability. When viewed in this light, the explanations that are presented as reasons for failure become excuses for not following through on a commitment.
Of course, there are also legitimate reasons an individual might not meet the expectations that were outlined. It might not be possible in the given timeframe, they might not have the necessary skills, or the budget might not be realistic. These circumstances are avoidable, but it’s not exclusively up to individual employees to identify and communicate these challenges. Leaders and managers must also participate in a way that helps individuals follow through on their commitments. Closing the gap between intention and results will lead to greater personal accountability. Leaders can facilitate this in the organization by embracing a three-step process: defining a mutual understanding of the desired outcomes, assessing whether it is possible for the person to achieve the desired results with their current skill set, and getting their commitment to executing the agreed-upon plan. Let’s look at how to go about each of these three steps.
1. Achieving understanding: setting clear expectations
The first step in ensuring that assignments are reasonable is for both parties to have a thorough understanding of the expectations. Without this mutual understanding, the individual might fail to meet the desired standards, even if they are following through on their personal commitment.
When setting expectations around a particular assignment, include these three important criteria:
What is the expected outcome?
When is the due date?
How should the individual accomplish the expected outcome?
This conversation will be different for every individual. For example, a junior-level employee might need more explanation about how a certain task should be performed. A more senior-level employee won’t need step-by-step instructions, but can contribute more to the discussion about a realistic due date. Tailoring the discussion to each individual is essential when the goal is personal accountability.
In a fully developed culture of accountability, achieving understanding is a two-way dialogue. Employees feel empowered to ask questions such as, “How much time should it take me to complete this task?” And leaders know that they must be prepared with all of the relevant information before assigning a task or project. When accountability is the company-wide standard, individuals know that clear expectations set the stage for success.
2. Getting agreement: adjusting for roadblocks
Agreeing to complete an assignment is more than just a simple yes or no. It requires careful consideration of whether the what, when, and how of the task are possible. When making a personal commitment, it’s not fair to yourself or others to make promises you can’t keep. Even though it’s good practice to aim high and maintain strong standards, taking on assignments that can’t be delivered as expected will slow the project, impede progress, and hurt your professional reputation.
Before making a commitment or assigning a task, take the time to anticipate the obstacles that might arise and make adjustments accordingly. Follow these steps to help come to a mutual understanding and set a realistic goal:
- Look at the calendar and map out a realistic timeline.
- Talk to others on the team about their availability rather than assuming they can help; remember that they have made personal commitments of their own.
- Consider the knowledge and skill set necessary for executing the assignment and compare it against your own. You might have to factor in training or research time if there is a gap between what is required and your current abilities.
- Carefully evaluate the budget to determine whether it is realistic.
- Determine what other resources are required and make sure they are accessible.
All of these steps will help ensure that commitments are realistic and achievable. If you don’t take the time to do this evaluation and adjustment, you will inevitably encounter hurdles that will affect your ability to deliver on personal accountabilities. You can’t predict the future, but you can learn from past experience and thoughtfully apply those lessons to future commitments.
3. Taking action: leaders must be rigorous in their expectation
After confirming mutual understanding, accounting for potential hurdles, and adjusting commitments accordingly, nothing should remain in the way of delivering on an assignment. It is then up to leaders to demand personal accountability to see the project through.
To do so, leaders can measure progress along the way by checking in at previously agreed-upon points along the path to completion. This reinforces that the leader is expecting the promised outcome to be delivered on time and up to the previously discussed standards. Creating mini-milestones also helps individuals stay on track, especially for larger projects that might feel overwhelming. Leaders and employees can then work together to identify any necessary course corrections that will help individuals fulfill their commitments and stay personally accountable.
In addition to delivering on their own promises, there are certain behaviors leaders can display to promote accountability in the organization. When leaders recognize that a deliverable might not be completed as promised, this is an opportunity to provide support and coaching. What productivity or time management skills can be transferred to help an individual follow through on their commitment? What other adjustments might be necessary to ensure that the goal is met? By staying engaged in this way, leaders demonstrate the importance of personal accountability and show that outcomes must be delivered as promised.
Personal accountability is a hallmark of world-class organizations. To create a culture of accountability, leadership must demonstrate it themselves and demand it from others. In order for that demand to be fair, expectations must be clear and agreed upon, and leaders need to participate in the follow-through. All of these skills are teachable and can be honed over time with training and practice.
Individuals at every level, including leadership, can benefit from ongoing training. It’s important to remember that even if you have a strong commitment to personal accountability, you might need to learn how to coach others to do the same. Investing in leadership training equips executives, managers, and supervisors with the skills to help others achieve the highest standards of accountability.