Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Are you frustrated with the lack of accountability in your company culture? You're not alone.
Here are three ways you can drive more accountability, starting with your own behaviour.
Accountability starts with you
If you don't make it clear what done looks like, if you don't give clear constraints, don't be surprised if people don't do what you ask them to do. This failure of accountability is with you, not the person you asked to do something. How can you hold someone accountable to something if there is no clear definition of what done looks like, and when it needs to be done? You may not want to give artificial deadlines because you hate them yourself. But without a clear constraint like that, the person you ask is less able to prioritize and complete the task you are asking them to do. Think about constraints like lanes, stop signs, and traffic lights on the road. What would it be like to drive somewhere without the lines on the road?
If you've been to Mumbai* or Naples, you know what it is like (even with lines on the road!) - chaotic. But when there are clear constraints you have more freedom, rather than less. The same applies to your leadership. Give people clear constraints, like deadlines and definitions of done, that will make it easier for them to be accountable and for you to hold them accountable. * True story: I was once stuck in a traffic jam at 2 am in Mumbai. With hundreds of cars, humans, tuk-tuks, and a cow in the middle of the intersection.
Give autonomy, inspect and verify
Here's the good news: knowledge workers love autonomy, and your new COVID quasi-work-from-home team has autonomy built-in. But you may be worried. You may worry that If you have to give more autonomy than you're used to, how do you maintain control? Without being a dreaded micro-manager? A simple way to do this is to use "I Intend To" language. David Marquet, commander of the nuclear submarine Santa Fe and author of Turn the Ship Around!, was about to be deployed. The problem was he didn't have the normal amount of training for the specific submarine he was going to be the commander of. With the Navy's centralized command-and-control culture, and with David's lack of technical training on the specific submarine, David realized that he would put lives at risk if he were to lead with centralized command-and-control. One simple way that he gave autonomy to his subordinate leaders, and continued to inspect and verify, was to coach his leaders to think for themselves. Instead of them coming to ask him what they should do, he coached them to critically think through a solution for themselves, then to say "Commander, here is the situation. I thought about it, and I intend to do (x)." This approach of giving them autonomy achieved a few great outcomes. It developed more critical thinking skills and leadership within his subordinate leaders. It reduced the commander as a lynchpin for all decisions. And it leads to more effective decisions from his leaders. For me, the most interesting result of this style was that a higher proportion of the subordinate leaders on this submarine went on to become commanders of other submarines, compared to the rest of the fleet. Giving autonomy increased leadership capability. If you want to give autonomy, retain control, and develop your leaders - use the language "I Intend To".
"It's not what you preach, it's what you tolerate." - Jocko Wilink
This is one of my favorite leadership quotes. I've seen plenty of leaders, and I'm sure you have too, preach all kinds of things and then tolerate behaviour that goes against it. You may have seen a leader preach "We have a culture of excellence" while tolerating accountabilities that are missed without addressing them. Tou may have witnessed a leader preach "We only have A-Players here" while tolerating sustained C-Player performance. They may even be tolerating "smart jerks", or those with toxic behaviour that lowers the performance of those around them. My definition of culture (for your team or your company) is simple. Your culture is defined by the behaviours that are tolerated. If you want to drive more accountability, stop preaching, and stop tolerating missed accountabilities.
What you can do to drive more accountability
Start giving clear constraints (deadlines) and clear expectations of what done looks like. Start using "I Intend to" language with both your direct reports and your boss. Start calling out when accountabilities are missed. Do so with tact, for example, "I've noticed this is the second time you said you would do this and haven't done it. This looks like a pattern. What is happening here?" And finally, stop preaching one thing and tolerating the opposite.