How Prioritizing Accountability Makes Teams More Effective
We often think of accountability through a negative lens—viewing it as a disciplinary function to hold bad actors accountable through blame and punishment. But accountability holds more positive power in the workplace than this reactive definition we tend to think of.
The good news about accountability is, it can be developed.
So, what is it then?
Accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. It’s a vital means to effectiveness. If each individual on a team practices accountability in their roles, then the team has a higher capacity to accomplish its goals and objectives in a given time.
Many of us have experienced low-accountability work cultures. They’re often signified by low morale, unclear priorities, declining engagement, ineffective execution, low levels of trust, and high turnover rates. When people aren’t held accountable, small issues snowball into systematic problems and productivity suffers. People take advantage of wiggle room, miss deadlines, show up late, and don’t execute work at as high a level that they could (and should).
The good news about accountability is, it can be developed. It’s not something that some people have and some people don’t. It isn’t an inherent quality or attribute—it’s a learned behavior. And like any behavior, the key to building a culture of accountability in the workplace is continuous, consistent practice.
How do leaders establish structures of accountability?
To build accountability for others and within companies, start with these foundational strategies:
- Create clarity. Clarify the ultimate goal(s) teams aim to achieve. Often, while we’re in execution mode, we get lost on the way and lose our sense of purpose or aim.
- Cultivate buy-in. Help teams commit and get excited about their goal(s). Else, acknowledge their lack of excitement and motivation, and dig into what’s causing that.
Measure progress. Help teams see their progress through appropriate qualitative and quantitative measures, and celebrate areas of success!
- Share feedback. Share any feedback you feel is important. Be open, honest, and kind. At a high level, leaders approach offering feedback with curiosity and empathy.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. Create a regular cadence of sharing updates, meeting continuously and consistently to improve your team’s odds of achievement.
One-on-one meetings offer a unique opportunity for leadership to instill these strategies into the work structure of each employee and listen to and understand employees at a more personal level. As I discussed in another article, one-on-ones help leaders learn the motivations of the people on their teams, and further allow them to assign employees tasks that align with these motivations and help the employees develop the skills they desire. Even more, building connections with the individuals on your team encourages a sense of belonging in companies.
Thus, they’re a great time and place to establish accountability. When individuals and teams are encouraged to own their work, ask questions freely, offer new ideas, and take risks (and make mistakes) without punishment or embarrassment from others, they work more effectively. This is a function of trust.
When setting up one-on-one meetings, choose a quiet environment with plenty of time and space to show employees that you care deeply about this meeting. This is an opportunity for you to support your teams in achieving their goals—just as they support you in achieving yours.
Once you have the meetings, then what? How do you establish accountability in these meetings?
Tactics to use
During my time at Commonwealth Joe, I organized myself and my teams with this powerful process, and since then, I’ve tweaked and implemented it with coaches, founders, and executives:
1. Create a shared, private board or page in a workflow management tool.
This is a lightweight, tech-driven channel for leaders/managers to communicate with their direct reports, check progress pertaining to goals and initiatives, and quickly pivot and intervene if and when employees lose track of priorities.
Regarding workflow management software options, I like Asana and Notion best, but Evernote, Apple Notes, Todoist, or any tech tool that can be shared with another contributor can do the trick. By providing a centralized infrastructure for the set-up, performance, and monitoring of tasks, these workspaces present teams with a clearer vision of how their duties fit into an overall organization’s progress.
Make sure only you and your direct report can see the content in the event sensitive information is shared.
2. Invite your direct report to jot down anything they want to discuss with you in the one-on-one.
Add a new “task” or “block” per discussion item. Set the expectation that it’s an active list and you may also add to it throughout the week.
This gives employees the agency to share their progress, thoughts, and constructive opinions with their superiors while in the moment. We all have moments throughout our day where a little bell goes off inside our head, “I should talk about that with X.” Our immediate reaction? Sending a Slack, a text, or an email. We, as leaders, have an innate desire to enable our teams, and often do not want our lack of responsiveness to “hold anything up.”
While on one hand, this can help keep momentum while working on a project, on the other hand, it fails to filter out the noise and it fails to solve the root cause of the problem: empowering the employee to act more autonomously and make their own decisions.
We can “interrupt” this process by asking our employees to fill out a new “task” or “block” in the workflow management tool with their questions. This allows you, as the leader, to take a step back and understand the organizational context they are missing that causes the questions to be asked in the first place.
3. Prioritize this list at the beginning of the one-on-one.
This is your agenda.
Begin the meeting by prioritizing this list together—with your direct report having more say. This ensures that no information is lost and that the meeting can be conducted in priority order.
It’s tempting to start with the “low-hanging fruit.” Resist the urge. The easy stuff is easy for a reason: It’s inconsequential, has a low cost of failure, and decisions might be based on personal preferences. The hard stuff is hard for a reason: It’s unclear, has a high degree of uncertainty, is more irreversible, and requires real critical thinking. Discuss the highest priority first. That way, even if you run out of time and the high priority challenges remain unsolved, you’ve spent as much time as possible moving the hardest challenges forward.
Also, if you save the low-hanging fruit for last, it’s amazing how much of it you can accomplish in the final three minutes of a meeting. Thank you, Parkinson’s Law. You may also find it easier to say, “For these final items, I trust you to make the decision and move forward.” That’ll certainly speed things up.
Ask, “Which of these agenda items are the most difficult, challenging, or unclear to you?” Start there.
4. Capture action items with new “tasks” and “blocks.”
Assign them to the appropriate owner. Ask your direct report when they think they can complete it. Write it down in the workflow management tool.
A caveat: Try and avoid these one-on-ones becoming “status update meetings”—reviewing past action items and checking in on progress. To make your time (and the time of your direct report) more effective, ask them to provide written updates to each action item prior to the meeting. This helps you digest the information quickly and unblock any progress the direct report might be facing at a higher level.
Then it’s time to restart the cycle of accountability with new goals and tasks to tackle for the next week. Remember, this agenda is active, and more will be added as the week progresses.
Here’s an example of an accountability meeting task list from one direct report. Simple and effective:
It does not need to be more difficult than this. Start small, then inch forward.
Questions to ask
Once the proper communication channels have been established through workflow management software and shared 1-1 agendas, it’s time for leaders to coach their direct reports and help them develop the strategic thinking muscles needed to work through their challenges.
When offering feedback in accountability meetings, err on the side of asking questions to help individuals and teams think through challenges instead of giving advice or opinions. When we give advice or opinions, we risk offering merely a short-term solution and sharing information without the full context of their challenge. In contrast, when we ask questions, we give employees the opportunity to reflect, share the full context, and find the answers and solutions for themselves.
I’m not arguing for withholding information, “making them work for it,” or creating a “sink or swim” environment. I’m arguing to use questions as a means to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, especially in entrepreneurial environments.
You can write the standard operating procedure for the 100 various components, tasks, and protocols in your business—capturing the 100 most common challenges and solving them in a manual. But, in entrepreneurial environments, conditions change so quickly, what happens when the 101st challenge appears? Many employees want the chance to solve it themselves; many leaders want them to do it. So, help them develop this skill to tackle it autonomously.
Here’s a short list of questions that can encourage more ownership, reflection, critical thinking, and problem solving on your team:
- Where have you already been successful in achieving your goals?
- What habits or behaviors are you doing that have made you successful?
- What impact do you feel accomplishing your goals will have on the lives of others? (yourself, your team, the organization, our customers, etc?)
- Where are you lacking clarity with respect to your goals and responsibilities?
- What may have blocked you from achieving your goals?
- What has been challenging or difficult for you?
- To solve these challenges, what solutions have you considered?
- What does the data say?
- What does your gut say?
- What other information is missing, to better guide your decision?
- Is there anything I can help you with—to further your goals, give you more resources, or make our workplace better for you?
- How am I doing as a leader? How can I make things easier for you?
An exception to this rule is to share your personal experience and how you dealt with it. In sharing your experience and story, you’re sharing what was true for you and acknowledging that, while it may not exactly match the other individual’s situation, your experience may help them reflect on their own.
In my experience…
Founders, leaders, and managers alike can employ these tactics and this line of questioning to better scale critical thinking and problem solving throughout the organization—simultaneously building accountability while offering help and feedback.
Accountability-focused leadership provides perpetual context for shared thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions prior to every meeting. With these systems in place, nobody ever feels like they’re in the dark, everyone has meaning, and collaboration thrives.
Like anything else worthwhile, accountability takes effort, and leaders must lead by example when enacting these systems in their organizations. When they do, employees follow. It’s not about talking about hypotheticals or dreaming about better employees. It’s not about yearly company retreats. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions every day and ensuring that your employees follow your lead and do the same. When individuals value their roles in a company and hold themselves to a high standard, their teams flourish.
As Aristotle said centuries ago: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”