People often call for more accountability, when they’re really asking for repercussions. Without bringing up the Webster’s definition of accountability, let’s define it as:

The state of an organization that allows an individual’s obligations to be satisfied

I don’t know if that definition is accurate or all-encompassing, but it’s worked for me. Let’s break it further down into it’s parts.

  1. The state of an organization,
  2. that allows
  3. an individual’s obligations,
  4. to be satisfied.

1- The state of an organization…

First, we have to understand that accountability is a condition or trait of an organization. That organization can be an entire company, a small cohort, a family, a political party or a sports team. Importantly, it’s not an action taken on an individual.

2- That allows…

Second, accountability must go hand-in-hand with authority. This authority might be small or large, but it must be explicit and applied consistently. If I ask my kid to mow the lawn, I’ve got to trust him with lawnmower – it would be ridiculous to expect him to get the job done with scissors. Similarly, if you’re asking an employee to lead a department, you’ve got to trust them with the authority to get the job done. Yes, they might exercise that authority and make decisions differently than you might, but that’s where the third part comes in.

3- An individual’s obligations…

Third, obligations must be clear and agreed. A hazy assignment is just as bad as an assignment unilaterally assigned without input. To achieve accountability, we’ve got to agree on what the goal is and how we’re going to get there. Rather than defining the exact path, I prefer to put of some guardrails and let the teammate learn and grow on their own. Consider the image below.

A learning playground
A couple defined guardrails and a clear defined goal

Certainly, this requires more conversation and forethought than most delegation is given, but it’s critical to set your team up for success. You’ll be amazed at the creativity, growth and learning that will take place if you give folks the space to learn and the safety to fail a few times. Some obligations might have a larger or smaller playground, depending on your appetite for risk and how critical the assignment is, but the recipe stay the same.

4- To be satisfied.

Finally, the obligation must be satisfied.

There are no half-measures and there are no participation prizes. In the happy and likely event that your teammate fully satisfies the obligation, you should have an appropriate debrief. Synthesizing the experience is just as important as the experience and result itself.

If the obligation is not fully satisfied, you still need to have an appropriate debrief. We’re all going to screw up or miss the shot occasionally, but the conversation needs to happen. In the best case, you’ll discover the root cause and set the teammate up for success in the future. I firmly believe that all mistakes can be assigned to the “training budget”, if handled properly.

In another best case scenario, your conversation will unearth that the teammate isn’t in a position they can succeed at. You’ll be doing your job as a coach by helping them move on to a position where they can succeed and grow. Sometimes this position won’t be in your organization anymore and that’s okay! You’re doing a person no favors by keeping them in a position where they can’t meet their obligations.

The only bad scenario, is not having the these conversations. There’s no excuse for failure to give appropriate feedback and failure to take action.

Wrap up!

Accountability isn’t about repercussions. When someone rants about the “lack of accountability” in their organization, I hear a totally different message. They’re often unknowingly diagnosing an organization where feedback is withheld, actions are delayed and obligations are vague. The proper medicine for this diagnosis is implementation of real accountability: “The state of an organization that allows an individual’s obligations to be satisfied