Let's talk about accountability

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

Within the past two weeks no less than four members of my peer advisory group of local business owners have approached me with a question about accountability. The questions range from “Do people just not want to be accountable?” to “How do I make sure my employees do what I am asking them to do?”

So, let’s talk about accountability.

“Accountability is about delivering on a commitment,” according to Peter Bergman in the Harvard Business Review, “It’s responsibility to an outcome…”

Accountability has nothing to do with a set of tasks, yet when employers and managers talk with me about accountability they invariably speak about activity, not productivity.

A long time ago, I worked on an automobile assembly line. The job I was assigned did not seem very complicated, lift a large part of the car’s front end, walk with the large part to the rest of the vehicle passing by, drop a bolt through a couple of holes, attach a nut to the bolt, secure a safety strap and voila, on to the next car. Sounds pretty simple until you find out that the “part” included headlights, the grill with the radiator, weighed about 130 pounds, required two workers, one of whom was stepping over an open pit, fit the bolt through the holes while attempting to secure the nut with two fingers (no thumb) reaching inside an inch wide channel, followed by securing the safety strap in under one minute since the line was running at seventy vehicles an hour.

I didn’t mention that in addition to the parts we carried for each installation we were also given a piece of yellow marking crayon to be used to place a large “X” on the front quarter panel of any vehicle where we were not able to complete all the activities on time. Later on, down the line, there were people assigned to a crew that searched for the yellow “X’s” and completed the unfinished work.

However, this crew was located outside the exit door for the plant, the plant manager was bonused on the total number of cars that left the plant each day, regardless of condition. Look, I know this is a horror story but there is a point; in this scenario, what was I accountable for? There were lots of actions (activity) involved but it was nearly impossible for me to determine what I had accomplished on any given day save for putting in the required number of hours.

Even at the age of 21 I needed to have some sense of accomplishment from my work, I didn’t stay long, in spite of the good pay and auto workers benefits.

You see, accountability is more than doing what you are asked or possibly told to do. Accountability is a way of being related, much less about doing anything and much more about being committed to doing what is needed to produce a result, a choice having been made. I realize it is a subtle distinction yet critical. Neglecting to establish a relationship based in accountability is most certainly at the root of unacceptable performance.

Here’s a list of the critical elements in a relationship based in accountability offered by Peter Bergman in his article “The Right Way to Hold People Accountable” from the May 2016 Harvard Business Review.

  1. Clear Expectations. Both verbal and written explanations of the desired outcome to be produced clearly communicated. “Have a genuinely two-way conversation, and before it’s over, ask the other person to summarize the important pieces — the outcome they’re going for, how they are going to achieve it, and how they’ll know whether they’re successful”
  2. Clear Capability. This should be obvious right? In my story of the auto plant a missing detail was that at the time I weighed 128 pounds, lifting my half of the front-end assembly meant that in an eight-hour shift, addressing 70 cars an hour, I was responsible for lifting around 36,400 pounds. Someone might have anticipated some wear and tear issues, but they did not.
  3. Clear Measurement. During the expectations conversation, you should agree on weekly milestones with clear, measurable, objective targets.
  4. Clear Feedback. “People should know where they stand. If you have clear expectations, capability, and measurement, the feedback can be fact-based and easy to deliver. The feedback can also go both ways — is there something you can be doing to be more helpful?”
  5. Clear Consequences. If you’ve been clear in all of the above ways, you can be reasonably sure that you did what’s necessary to support their performance. At this point, you have three choices: repeat, reward or release.

One final element, there must be a choice made by the person you wish to be accountable. They need to have the opportunity to say no, otherwise, after the exchange of expectations you are still accountable, and they are merely helping out.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com. He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other.”

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