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Leading Accountability

“The ancient Romans had a tradition. Whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”

– Michael Armstrong, HR and Leadership Thinker

We have problem in our workplaces today—too few people are willing to stand under their arches. When we talk with managers about their frustrations, we constantly hear, “How do I hold my people accountable? Why don’t my employees reach their goals, do their work well, and meet expectations?” We would love for each person on our team, in our department, and across the organization to choose accountability. But accountability doesn’t work that way—it starts with us. In order to hold others accountable, we’re got to hold ourselves accountable.

Accountability is more about mindset than about skills—it’s a promise or a commitment that we make to others or ourselves to take something on. When we have an accountable mindset, we take ownership, action, and responsibility.

  • To take ownership means we agree to accomplish a result, even when we don’t know the exact outcome of what we’ve agreed to do. Taking ownership means that we’re personally invested in the result. We’re clear about what needs to be done and why.
  • After we’ve taken ownership, we take action to ensure that we get done what we’ve agreed to do. We stay focused on our priorities and provide feedback along the way.
  • Finally, we take responsibility to answer for the outcome, regardless of the result, to move forward and learn from the experience. Taking responsibility means we admit our mistakes, apologize if necessary, and move forward. Instead of wasting time determining who’s to blame, we reflect on the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Accountability relies heavily on clear agreements and feedback. Let’s revisit the question, “Why don’t employees reach their goals, do their work well, and meet expectations?” Most of the time, we aren’t accountable because expectations aren’t clear—we don’t know exactly what’s supposed to happen and when—and because we’re not receiving information on how we’re doing or what we need to improve.

  • Clear agreements are the contracts or promises we make to each other. They clarify the expectations about what we’re going to do, when, where, why, and how. If the expectations are clear, then we know exactly what we’re to deliver. It’s also important for each person to understand why the result or the outcome is important.
  • Feedback ensures that everyone stays on track. In a culture of accountability, communication among team members and departments is open and candid. People ask for input on how they’re doing and give feedback that’s clear, honest, and open as they seek to help each person deliver the agreed upon results.

When you work through this accountability process of taking ownership, taking action, and taking responsibility, you can change the way you work and help others change for the better, too. When you’re personally accountable, you own your decisions, your outcomes, and your life. Others follow your example and choose accountability for themselves. Start setting that example today!

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