Accountability

By: Jim Bruce
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How to hold yourself accountable and help your staff do likewise.

Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary defines accountability as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for, or to account for one’s actions.  This definition does not speak to the issue of one’s success or less than that with regard to our actions.  Yet, as Connors and Smith note in “How to Create A Culture of Accountability,” individuals tend to “view accountability as something that belittles them or happens when performance wanes, problems develop, or results fail to materialize. … people rarely ask ‘Who is accountable for this success?’”
 
Accountability is really a measure of whether you completed a task that you accepted.  So, in reality, it has to do with my integrity, doing what I say I will do, and my credibility, whether I can be trusted and believed.  If I want to be seen as a credible person with integrity, I will choose to nail my tasks.  For this reason, I believe that it's the individual who always bears the responsibility to hold himself or herself accountable. 
 
In the course of my life and work, I take on tasks from two basic sources – myself and from those who ask me to do tasks, or who delegate them to me.  And, I also delegate tasks to others.  It’s easy to see why I’m responsible for holding myself accountable for tasks I initiate and take on. 
 
But, also for those that are delegated to me?  Really?  Isn’t that my manager’s or the delegator’s role?  Ultimately, yes.  And, before it’s the manager’s role, it’s yours.  And, while it is your role, the manager’s role is to ensure that you have the tools and information you need to hold yourself accountable.  And, that information is the same information you really need in order to perform the task, including tasks that you assign to yourself.
 
Here’s what you need:
 

1.     What is the task?  In sufficient detail that I clearly understand what result is expected of me.
2.     Who’s the client?
3.     What would the result look like?
4.     Do I have the skills and knowledge to do the task?  If not, what do I need to learn?  
5.     When is the result due?
6.     Do I have sufficient time available, given the commitments that I already have as well as any time I might need to learn, to complete this task?  If not, can someone else take on some of what I’m now committed to do?  Can the due date be negotiated?  Etc.
7.     If I do take the task on, what interim milestones and check-in points will need to be met?  How do I keep my manager and the stakeholders informed of my progress?
8.     And, what’s in it for me?

And, as noted earlier, you need this same information when you assign yourself a task or take one on.
 
If, and when, you say yes to the task, you need to mark out on your calendar the time required to do all aspects of the task you’ve accepted.  If you don't do this immediately, the likelihood is that you will run into crunch-times along the way requiring long-hours and possibly missed milestones.
 
This definition and process for holding one’s self accountable will serve us well in successfully completing our assignments.  Yet, Conners and Smith believe that we have the opportunity to step up to a larger view and argue that we should.  They propose a new definition of accountability:  “A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving the result.”  This moves the task from something just to do, to a higher level of commitment to invest what is necessary to achieve the desired result.  And, this level of commitment and ownership can take you beyond the specific task to understand how the task fits into its environment and to have an interest in achieving not only success for your particular task but for the entire project.
 
As you take on tasks, and delegate tasks to others this week, think about this process as you explain the task to the individuals who will do the work, making sure that they understand the task, understand that they have the opportunity to hold themselves accountable for accomplishing the task, and that they need to see the task broadly understanding how it fits in its environment and act in that context. 
 
Make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim
 
 
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
 
References:
 
Roger Connors and Tom Smith, How to Create A Culture of Accountability, ASME Blog.
David Weliver, Manage Yourself:  10 Ways to Make Yourself Accountable at Work, in Life, and with Money, MoneyUnder30 Blog. 
Henry Browning, 7 Ways to Build Accountable Organizations, Forbes Leadership Blog.

 

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