Accountability is a very important word in the workplace. It conveys meaning, responsibility, attitude, and potential for both success and failure all at the same time. It is a cornerstone for ensuring that each individual team member takes their role in the product seriously, and grounding them so that they remain committed to success. Accountability is a term that should not be viewed as good or bad in and of itself, rather it is a tool, a means to an end.
Unfortunately, a lot of teams do not have a set definition of what accountability entails, so each member may be bringing a different definition of the term to their work. Many managers (and I am definitely guilty of this) use the term when discussing items with their team, but leave the term open and nebulous, which diminishes how effective it can be for guiding your group towards success. Now, it is entirely possible that each manager will have their own set definition for the term that matches their particular style, and I don’t think one catch all definition of the term will work for everyone. Rather, I think it is important that the manager effectively communicates their own interpretation of what “accountability” entails, and how they intend to implement it within their team. People should be excited to take ownership and accountability of a component of a project, to be given the opportunity to put their definitive stamp on their work. Explaining how this works, what you expect, and what they are to be held to should help work as an incentive to keep your team motivated. I have found that where this isn’t the case is when individual team members aren’t quite grasping what you mean by accountability, and how they are expected to work within that notion.
My own notes and ideas regarding accountability are as follows:
- Accountability ≠ Blame. For me, this is the most important part that I want my team to understand. The idea of accountability should not be equated with finger pointing. BEing accountable for something is to take responsibility for both success and failure, and take that on oneself. When misses occur, people shouldn’t be looking to see who was responsible for each part. People should be looking to see what could have been done better. As a manager, you need to address each miss with your people. What you don’t need to do is ensure that you immediately lay out blame. When your team loses, you lose. Seek to improve, not point fingers.
- Picture your favourite material item in the world. Maybe it’s your car, maybe a guitar, maybe your cell phone, maybe your autographed Right Said Fred vinyl record. Whatever, I’m not here to judge. Picture how you interact with that item, how you care for it, how much it means to you. That’s how I want you to feel regarding your portion of the project when I speak of accountability. It’s yours to care for, work with, and make amazing. It will succeed or fail based on your loving attention, and your personal investment in it is what makes it great. Treat it the way you treat that special item. Just like if you toss your guitar carelessly and it might crack or park your car poorly and you may scratch the paint, not taking care with your work will hurt it as well.
- Accountability is a promise. A promise to take ownership of a series of tasks and results, and to ensure that you own these tasks to the best of your ability, and to communicate quickly and effectively when you see potential risk. This is a promise made not only to your manager, but to your colleagues, stakeholders, the product, and to yourself. This is something that you should be able to look back, 6 months from now, a year from now, and say that you were accountable for your work and that your contribution to the project helped to ensure success. Because of this, you also have a stake in the success and failure of your team, as they are making similar promises. While you are accountable for your own contributions, you should also take accountability for the rest of the team. Help them. Let them help you. In the words of the immortal Vanilla Ice: “Alright stop, collaborate and listen.”
Making your team understand what accountability means to you and your project is your responsibility as a manager. If every member of your team has a different understanding of the term, that is your failure. Just remember, it’s never too late to change this. Work with them to unify this theme across the board, and I truly believe that they will be better off. Even if they may not be convinced of your definition, you can work with them so that they can better understand your vision. Give them the tool, and see what they can do with it.