Accountability is one of those principles of business that is an important foundation of organizational culture but is easily shrugged off as a buzz-word. Ask someone in your organization to define accountability, and you may hear any number of answers, from “I don’t know” to “following the rules.” You might even see some eyes roll.
Accountability is rarely explicitly defined, whether for the organization as a whole, or for the departments and teams that work within them. While a well-designed performance management system may hint at the underlying accountability philosophy, rarely does an organization define the daily act of accountability, even for its leadership team for whom it is most important.
What is accountability? A quick search at Dictionary.com reveals the following definition: “ac·count·a·bil·i·ty [uh-koun-tuh-bil-i-tee]: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.” Certainly, it is an obvious answer to the question, but it does not shed much light on what it means for people in organizations to be accountable.
Intuitively, everyone has a sense of what accountability means to them. A warehouse clerk is accountable for accurate parts inventory every month. A human resources director is accountable for ensuring the company heeds employment laws. A CEO is accountable for business results. For each of these examples, the word “accountable” could be replaced by “responsible.” Each person is responsible for achieving a result.
Yet, accountability means more than responsibility. There is a sense that other people are involved. The same CEO is accountable to shareholders. The warehouse clerk is accountable to his manager. The human resources director is accountable to the employees. Accountability requires that someone has a stake in whether or not the desired result is achieved.
In fact, the person who is responsible for the result also must have a stake in achieving the outcome. There must be a consequence – positive or negative – based on whether or not the outcome is achieved.
The basic definition of accountability, then is:
Accountability is a promise to yourself and others to deliver specific, defined results, with consequences.
The process for assigning accountability asks four questions. Answer the questions within the following guidelines.
Accountable for what?
Accountability starts with an outcome, a result that needs to be accomplished. It is important to distinguish between responsibility for activities and accountability for results. Micro-managers define the activities that are expected and then hold employees responsible for performing those activities. However, accountability for results requires room for judgment and decision-making. Someone can’t be accountable for an end result if someone else tells him what to do and how to do it. Ultimately, it is the end result that forms the expectation upon which accountability is based.
Who is accountable?
Next, assign who holds the responsibility for the result. Ultimately, accountability is not shared. A manager who has taken on responsibility for a result may delegate that responsibility to an employee, however the manager does not give up the accountability for that result, nor does she truly share the accountability with that employee, since they are accountable to different people.
Accountable to whom?
Everyone is accountable first to himself. The result must be achieved within the scope of one’s own personal values, ethics and abilities.
Identify the party or parties who have a stake in the outcome. If there is more than one stakeholder, determine if the expected outcomes are the same. If the expectations are different, then an agreement should be made between the stakeholders on how those outcomes are related.
What are the consequences?
Accountability is meaningless without consequences, positive or negative. The concept of holding someone accountable comes in here. If someone accomplishes the results they promised to achieve, then he should be recognized for that. If someone misses his target, then he should at best not receive the recognition, and at worst he should be penalized. It is important to define the consequence up front.
Accountability is not conditional. Accepting unconditional responsibility means there are no excuses and no one to blame, even if events are beyond one’s control. Also, accountability for results means activities are not enough. It is not enough to execute activities perfectly if the desired outcome is not achieved. If people receive the expected reward for trying hard, then accountability will not work. If the organization wants to reward risk-taking or trying hard, then it should be done outside of the original accountability agreement.
How accountability is assigned and followed up in your organization defines how results-oriented your organization is. Explicitly defining accountability and setting clear guidelines for holding people accountable can go a long way toward achieving results.
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