How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

SHIDEH SEDGH BINA: As a transformational leader accountability is a critical conversation in your arsenal of conversations. However, that's not because it's important to find out who's wrong or who to blame. It's about taking whatever performance you've got and using it to elevate performance moving forward. It's as critical to call people to account when they're successful as it is when they've fallen short of the commitments they've made. So it's not about who's to blame, what I did wrong, what's wrong about you, what's wrong about me? It's about elevating performance. And to do that you need to start with an understanding what does it mean to be accountable. We use that word all the time. What does that mean?

Defining Accountability

What is accountability? If you look in different dictionaries you come up with three different aspects of being accountable. Accountability is considered to be liable to be called to account, answerable. That doesn't really help to use the word account to understand accountable. How about this? Capable of providing a reckoning of the governing or primary factors. Now that's pretty interesting. Well if you think about the word accounting it's used in terms of financial accounting. And what is financial accounting? Financial accounting gives you a reckoning of the money. What went in, what went out, what exists as an asset, what exists as a liability, et cetera. The third aspect of the definition of accountability is responsible for providing or governing so as to meet the conditions required that bring about a result.

So now we have two things. Giving a reckoning of the primary factors and responsible for the conditions that are required to bring about a result. Well what is the primary factor in performance? When I say to you, "I'll deliver X performance. I'll deliver this level of sales. I'll deliver this level of output. I'll deliver that report by X time." – whether that's in a month, a year, weeks. What are the primary factors that deliver that? Well as we said all results are a function of action. And we can even include inaction as a sub-element of action. So here we've got providing a reckoning of the primary factors. In performance the primary factor is the actions you take and the actions you don't take. Everything you and I have delivered or not delivered in our work and even in our lives is a function of the actions we've taken and the actions we haven't taken.

The Context for Being Accountable

Now most people don't give a reckoning of their actions and inactions when they're accountable. Oftentimes we think that if we don't deliver a result but we've got a good enough story or explanation why we didn't deliver the result – that is accounting. In the framework we're offering you there is a key element of being responsible for the government factors, for the conditions that are required. What does that mean? Well if I'm a salesperson I can either say to you, "Hey, I didn't deliver my numbers this year because the economy turned bad." My story or explanation. Or I can look and see with the economy I've got how do I cause the results I'm committed to? How do I relate to the factors and conditions I've got to produce the results I've promised.

The accountable person doesn't say, "I didn't deliver because I had this condition or these circumstances and that's my accounting." The accountable person starts with the perspective: "I'm a hundred percent cause of any environment or circumstance that's been given to me. I delivered the results I delivered or I didn't deliver the results I promised because I didn't take the right actions." Or in some cases, "I took action when I shouldn't have taken action." So our actions and our inactions is what we are giving a reckoning about when we're being accountable. What does that sound like? It's a real clear conversation when someone's being accountable. And by the way, it is as critical to be accountable when you are successful in delivering – in other words give a reckoning of the actions and inactions that gave you successful outcomes, as it is to be accountable for when you don't deliver what you promise. What were the actions and inactions that gave you a gap or disappointment in your outcomes?

So going back to that salesperson there are people who produce no matter what the competitor is doing. There are people who produce no matter what the economy is doing. And when you talk to those people for them it's only a matter of figuring out – what are the actions that are going to have me be successful in that environment?

Critical Conversations

So what are the conversations of someone who's being accountable? What do they sound like? The context of the conversation is I'm 100 percent cause in anything I have to deal with in producing the outcomes I've promised. The conversation goes something like this. "I promised X." Whatever that is that you promised. "I delivered Y," meaning I didn't deliver my promise or "I delivered X." I delivered my promise. "My actions and inactions that contributed to that result are…"

Now this is very interesting. As someone who is listening to someone give an accounting, you want to listen as they list their actions and inactions and ask yourself does that paint a picture – if all of that happened would that have given the outcome you got? That's where it's really an agreement or a partnership, being accountable, and not something that one does just by themselves. It happens in a conversation.

My promises for action going forward. What does that mean? Well in the case of success it's how am I going to institutionalize or embed the practices I took for success this time, so it's repetitive and I'm able to be reliable in the future. My promises for action moving forward when you didn't deliver is – what are you going to correct in the future so that this situation in which you fell short of what you promised you can now improve in the future. A powerful accounting gives you a new platform for success in the future either by allowing you to build on a past success – there's no mystery how we got here – or correct on a shortfall so that in the future faced with the same thing you are stronger and more capable of delivering.

There's a fourth element when someone is being accountable, particularly in the area of a shortfall. My actions for cleaning up the mess or the impact of my not delivering. We live in a world where people count on our performance for their performance. The bigger the organization the more complex the work you do, the more people are dependent on each other. For me to stop and look at the impact and look at how I can mitigate that impact actually makes me a more reliable partner. Accountability is about improving performance. Accountability is about elevating reliability. Accountability is about being a great partner.

  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.