Accountability Culture – 11 Steps to Success

Happy team of co-workers

Accountability culture is a frequently-discussed goal, but what does it really look like? And where do you begin?

Accountability culture is about following through and meeting your commitments. Recognize that others are dependent on your work. It’s open communication to keep team members informed of the status of your commitments because it has a direct impact on their ability to achieve their own commitments.

Elevate accountability from a buzzword to a business culture. Aligning your team around shared objectives. Deliver feedback about  progress toward the common goal. Accountability-rich teams encourage creative problem-solving to move the team forward. The achievement of a goal is less about the how and the who, and more about the what and the when.

When team members demonstrate consistent ownership and accountability, trust grows. Trust is the backbone of high-performing teams.

When people are not accountable, one person’s delay becomes the team’s delay. One shortfall snowballs into bigger shortfalls. Tolerating missed deadlines, lack of punctuality, and unfinished or poor-quality work has the tendency to make this behavior “no big deal.” People learn that deadlines are wishes; that being 10 minutes late for a meeting is fine; that sub-par work is acceptable. Your team suffers, and ultimately your workplace culture suffers, too.

It’s incumbent on leadership to have the uncomfortable conversations. Teams are not responsible to self-police. Still, many managers who will not say, “You were assigned and agreed to complete X. You didn’t. Please explain why.” They shy away from this part of their job – even though it lowers the performance of the entire team! Having a member of the team that isn’t meeting their commitments and isn’t held accountable makes the employees who ARE accountable frustrated. Are they rules and expectations, or merely suggestions?

What makes it easier for teams to work with a culture of accountability? Mutual goals, and mutual respect. How do you build that culture? Try this:

1. Work on yourself first

Leadership defines culture, so accountability starts with man looking at self in mirror You don’t need to have a management title to be a leader! Model the behaviors that you want to see on your team. If you want people to take ownership, then  take ownership. When you make commitments,  meet them. And when you fail, admit it and commit to a new timeline.

Blame is the opposite of accountability. No matter how many steps in the process break down, before you or after you, you are still accountable for your part. That sometimes means reaching out to other team members and helping them so that the Objective Key Result is achieved.

For more on the traits of strong leadership, click here.

2. Clarify your Objective Key Results

Objective Key Results (OKR) are strategically critical to the success of the team or the organization. We call them Objective because there is no sliding scale – no partial credit. Either it’s done or it’s not done.

Many employees don’t behave with much accountability, frequently because of unclear expectations and non-specific desired results. It always feels like the target is moving.

Defining three to four Objective Key Results (not more at one time!) is the first step to focusing a team and holding each other accountable for performance. The bottom line: The most important thing leaders can do to foster a culture of accountability is ensure that everyone understands what results are necessary.

3. Give employees clear roles in driving Objective Key Results, and name them

Ownership is the first step in accountability. It means, “This is my work.”

Employees often feel their positions don’t contribute to the team’s overall success, which leads them to disengage from work. When it is clear to everyone that their own work is an integral part of the project, they see how the pieces fit together, and accountability improves. “I don’t want to inconvenience Rashad, Joan, and Anita. I need to finish this today.”

Not sure if your organization is ready for an accountability culture? Click here to learn more about Small-to-Medium-sized business foundations.

4. Put a date (or time) on it

calendarWhen the OKR is confirmed, and while the work is being assigned, have each involved team member commit to a specific date or time by which each part of their task will be completed. Put it all on an OKR master schedule which gets emailed to one and all.

When you only put a date on the final Result, you run the risk of the task being overlooked. If you put a date on each step, it’s easier to put into your daily calendar, and it helps teams follow the workflow of the project. Now you’re on your way to Objective Results Tracking (ORT).

5. Give and receive feedback regularly

Keeping the feedback loop open is critical for success. It allows team members to track progress, celebrate milestones, hear other perspectives, and provide insight. Leaders can use feedback (ORT) sessions to adjust or redirect actions before it’s too late to make a difference. Most importantly, a whole team exchange of feedback nurtures trust and respect by giving everyone on the team a voice.

Feedback often has a negative connotation. Give as much positive feedback as you do constructive feedback. People need to feel that it is safe to fail and discuss it, or they will not try new or innovative things. Remember, it’s a team OKR, not one person’s. When one team member is stuck, the team is stuck.

6. Accountability is not a one-time thing

Accountability is not for special occasions; it’s an all-time thing. Some people may not want to be held accountable, and look for opportunities to get out of it. Blame, gossip, “tattling” on team members, or refusing to help a struggling teammate are all things that erode the accountability culture. They must be addressed as they happen.

7. Accountability applies to the whole team, top to bottomteamwork business men reviewing document

There are no favorites here. The goal is the goal. The team is the team. And teamwork is teamwork. If someone is phoning it in, it needs to be addressed in a feedback (ORT) meeting, even if it’s the leader who isn’t on track. The team will help that team member make the necessary adjustments, and should be willing to understand what is causing the delay, problem, or lack of effort. It’s the only way to solve the hold-up.

For more on taking responsibility for your work, click here.


8. Accountability cannot be delegated

You cannot delegate accountability; a person must choose to take ownership consciously. The best way to help team members take ownership of their part of a project is to set them up to be successful. No one wants to be accountable for something that they know, or believe, will fail.

Make sure to put in place the mechanisms and resources to be successful. This requires some planning when the goal is set, and the assignments are being worked out. When a team member says they have what they need to get their work done, they have taken the first step toward accepting accountability. If they say they don’t have what they need, make sure to provide resources or show where to find them, or you are setting up your team to fail.

9. Work on your feedback skills

The key is to recognize whether you are providing feedback, or just heckling. Challenge assumptions, not people.

“I don’t like that,” doesn’t move the project forward. “I thought we were working toward something that looks more polished,” creates the opening for a conversation about expectations.

Assume your teammate wants to do a good job, and help them get there. Start with a specific example: “John, I see that X happened. Can you connect the dots for me? How did we get here, and how do we  get back on track?”

At its root, good feedback comes from a place of wanting to help. Remember that the team rises and falls together. Someone else’s failure is your failure. Be clear and direct. Feedback should not be ambiguous. If you have a concern, share it in a way that makes clear that you are most focused on achieving the OKR with high quality work.

10. Have the difficult conversation

A lack of accountability sends a message to the rest of your team that lower standards are OK. And if you don’t address the problem employee, the team may perceive it as favoritism or weakness, which can be demotivating for everyone.

Address poor performance as soon as possible. If you’re a manager, or a teammate, do it one-on-one. (It makes your intent to help clearer and more believable if you don’t embarrass the person!) After all, nothing is likely to change unless you confront the problem. You don’t want an employee’s non-performance to become a team issue.

Figure out the “why” behind the poor performance. For example, a new hire may need additional training, while a veteran staffer may have taken on too much. Be clear about the action or behavior you expect from the employee going forward.

11. Celebrate Achievementsfist bump celebrating

All this teamwork, Objective Results Tracking, feedback, and accountability means when there’s a win, it’s a team win. Celebrate! Big celebrations, team lunch, or even “cheers” with your coffee cups demonstrate respect for your teammates and recognition that you achieved this result together. Celebrate when the whole group is together if possible. If someone is on vacation or a business trip, try to arrange for them to participate in the revelry in person. And then – start your next project on a high note!