Encouraging Accountability in the Workplace

In school, I absolutely dreaded the words “group project.”  Too often, my partners didn’t deliver their share of the work. It took years for me to trust others to be accountable and to feel comfortable working in a team setting. In hindsight, part of the fault was mine.  I could never bring myself to take the advice of teachers to “let them fail; they’ll learn.”  (After all, I got a bad grade too!)  So I spent years doing the lion’s share of the work and quietly seething with resentment about it.

Unfortunately, this same dynamic can follow us into the workplace.  (I guess some of those guys never “learned.”) 

So how can we encourage accountability in the workplace and avoid the problems that come from someone not carrying their weight?  Here are some DOs and DON’Ts:

DO lead by example.

No surprise to see this one at the top of the list.  As with so many other aspects of workplace culture, employees copy the behaviors they see their leaders exhibit.  They know if managers and executives don’t consistently fulfill promises to them and to clients.  They see when leaders only pay lip service to calls for innovation and allow projects to languish in development limbo.

When these toxic behaviors pass without meaningful consequences, an “it just doesn’t matter” attitude eventually trickles down to every level of your organization.  As a result, morale and productivity inevitably plummet.

DON’T try to delegate accountability.

You can delegate tasks, but you can’t make people feel a sense of ownership for them.  Accountability is about taking personal responsibility our actions and choices.  That commitment can only come from within, voluntarily.

DO track accountability.

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to help people who want to be accountable succeed.  There are all sorts of project and team management tools out there to do just that.  But tracking commitments and whether people fulfill them doesn’t require a huge investment of resources.

RACI matrix






You can easily use your favorite spreadsheet program to create a RACI matrix.  RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. The matrix documents the role each person plays in a larger project.  You can include deadlines, but don’t let things get too complicated.  This chart is a “big picture” view.  Let people organize and track their individual tasks in a way that makes sense for them.

The RACI matrix should document, however, when someone fails to follow through on the commitments for which they’ve accepted responsibility.  RACI charts can also show when one person does more than their fair share of the work.

DON’T let the little things slide.

One of my favorite proverbs has always been “For Want of a Nail.”  It’s been around since at least the early 13th century, warning how carelessness can snowball over time.

Of course, few of us set out to shirk our responsibilities and avoid being accountable for our actions.  But it can be so easy to fall into bad habits.  It’s not far from turning up late or unprepared for a team meeting to doing the same with a client.  Additionally, one person’s failure to deliver can cause delays further down the project timeline.

DO harness the power of positive feedback.

While it may be necessary to discipline team members who consistently fail to meet their commitments, this “stick” approach has only limited effectiveness.  After all – as I used to bemoan to those teachers – if they don’t care about the project, what makes you think they’ll care about the punishment?

A better approach is to praise people when they demonstrate accountability.  For a great how-to approach for doing this, please check out Ken Blanchard’s book, “Whale Done.”  We’ve used this positive reinforcement technique at for many years now, with excellent results!

DON’T hold people accountable for things outside their control.

Finally, make sure that people have the authority and ability to meet their commitments — not just the responsibility for doing so.  Few things are more destructive to morale than having to take the blame for a failure you couldn’t prevent.  Of course, there are unforeseeable circumstances that can prevent us from meeting our commitments. But more often, we create the circumstances that set ourselves and others up for failure.

Teach team members to consider whether they have the tools, training, and perhaps most importantly the time needed to complete a task before they commit to taking it on.  Give them the authority to say, “No,” when they need to – and make it stick.  And if your organization has a well-developed hierarchy, be careful about asking people to go against that flow. Don’t put an employee in the position of having to secure the cooperation of others higher up the food chain.

Collaboration Is the Future

As much as I – and perhaps you, too – may squirm at the thought of having to entrust our success or failure to others, collaboration is no longer an option.  In an increasingly fast-paced and technologically sophisticated workplace, the chance of any one person having all the skills needed for a project grows ever smaller.  But by encouraging accountability, we can position our teams to be able to implement that strategy effectively and succeed.

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