I hear leaders talking about accountability, but I sense that the more they push, the less they get in return. I called out eroding accountability in a speech I gave on the five leadership crises I see unfolding. So, putting my money where my mouth is, here’s the first of a series on accountability. I’m sharing ideas and tools to bolster accountability on your team.

I’m going to start by talking about what accountability is (and isn’t), and then I’ll give you simple steps to bolster people’s confidence that you’re accountable. In the following posts, I’ll tackle the biggest challenges in living up to your accountabilities and fostering accountability in others, including how to cope when you have accountability without control and what to do if you fail but still want to be accountable.

What Does it Mean to Be Accountable?

Being accountable is owning your obligations. It’s internalizing your role in a broader system and working diligently to deliver what you’ve committed. Being accountable is persisting until the task is accomplished.

Accountability is an internal process.

Unfortunately, much of our language about accountability is about external enforcement rather than internal obligation. So when your boss says, “I will hold you accountable,” they’re saying, I’ll act as if you feel accountable, even if you don’t. That’s not a good substitute.

What Does it Take to Be Accountable?

“Liane, do we have to over-complicate this? Isn’t accountability just doing what you say you’ll do?”

Sure, but for most complex, interdependent, ambiguous tasks you’re coping with, it’s not quite as simple as “just do it!”

Although there is no universal process for being accountable and demonstrating your accountability to your boss or others, here are the things you can do that would make me confident that you’re taking accountability and that you’ll get a good outcome:

  1. Paraphrase what you understand to be the assignment, goals, and what success looks like. Restating the expectation demonstrates that you’re processing the information deeply, not just nodding and walking away clueless.
  2. Ask questions to clarify the requirements and expose aspects of the task or problem no one has yet considered. When you go beyond the ask, I see you taking ownership of the outcome—engaging your head and heart, not just your arms and legs.
  3. Explore the thresholds for when you should persist, course correct, or escalate. Anticipating issues is encouraging because it means you appreciate there are pitfalls. Things might not go smoothly, and you want to respect the balance between taking ownership and taking unnecessary risks.
  4. Confirm timelines, milestones, deadlines, and interdependent projects. Clarifying the game plan makes me feel like you appreciate everyone who is counting on you.
  5. Ask for input about stakeholders, precedents, novel approaches, or good sources of information. Soliciting ideas highlights your desire to do things well, not just expediently.
  6. Check-in to share your plans, progress, concerns, and challenges. Providing updates helps me relax, knowing that you’re on top of any emerging issues and I’m not going to get an unpleasant surprise.
  7. Coordinate, influence, and coach those whose efforts you depend on to deliver. Engaging with stakeholders shows me that you feel ownership over aspects of the work you aren’t doing yourself.
  8. Notice when your original approach isn’t working and share your thoughts and ideas to course correct. Course-correcting makes me less worried that you’ll persist ineffectively.
  9. Ask for help by narrowing in on an issue you believe is the crux of where you need support rather than expressing general frustration and exasperation. Identifying the problem suggests that you haven’t abdicated ownership and can be trusted to work through the current struggle.
  10. Apologize, identify what went wrong, and propose a new approach if things go poorly. Taking ownership of a setback shows that you understand the ramifications of failure and that you’re not willing to accept defeat.

Not every situation will call for each of these steps, but demonstrating a few will go a long way to showing that you feel accountable.

Want to use this approach or share it with your team? Click the image to download the Accountability Checklist

Accountability Checklist

When People Question Your Accountability

While we’re at it, let’s pick off a few behaviors that will leave your boss or colleagues sweating over whether you will deliver.

  • Pretend to understand or be on top of something when you’re not.
  • Claim to be “done” when your task is complete, but your colleague’s components of the job are not.
  • Tell someone to do something, and when they don’t do what you asked, throw up your hands and say, “Well, it’s not on me then.”
  • Put your head down to do your part without communicating anything. (Even if you’re entirely accountable, you’re messing with people’s confidence by not keeping them in the loop.)
  • Make excuses or blame others when you fail to deliver on time.
  • Focus on getting the result with no concern for collateral damage done in how you accomplish it.

It’s worth taking a few deliberate steps to show your boss and colleagues that you understand your obligations and you’re taking the steps needed to deliver.

More on This: Accountability Miniseries

Most organizations emphasize accountability because it’s so important to driving results. Unfortunately, our notions of accountability and how to foster it are often misguided. This series delves deep into accountability from the perspective of an individual contributor who wants to demonstrate that they’re accountable and of a manager who wants to bolster accountability on their team.

Additional Resources

Video: We NEED to Change the Way We Talk About Accountability

Pass the Accountability

How to Decrease Accountability

Expert Advice: Kathy Caprino in Forbes: 4 Ways To Take Accountability For Your Actions (And Why So Many Don’t)