What do executives mean when they demand accountability? And what do employees mean when they complain that no one in the company has any?

Usually, they mean that someone should have decided, acted, or otherwise implemented some kind of outcome that just hasn’t happened yet. All too often, both sides point to a particular individual for not having done something. But it isn’t news when people do deliver. You rarely hear anyone saying, “How great for Xerxes! He really stood up and took accountability!”

Think of accountability as being “account able,” as being willing to go on record and answer for something. What most people really want is for their colleagues to stand up and say, “I will be responsible for X. I will see to it and come back to you to report that it has been done, and report back how it worked out. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Have you been in any meetings lately — or ever — where someone said something like this? Probably not! But how much better that would be than the more typical game of Hot Potato or Pass-the-Buck!

Signs of Missing Accountability

You can assess the behaviors in your workplace to see if accountability has gone missing. Here are some clues to watch for:

  • People go silent, stay in their silos, and don’t help each other. Instead of confronting boundary issues, they go underground.
  • Rather than admitting responsibility and seeking help, people try to fix problems before senior executives call them out. There’s increased deflection or outright transferring of responsibility or blame onto others.
  • It’s hard to get answers or go-ahead. Everything has to be checked with a dozen authorities and no one seems willing to take independent responsibility. Issues are renegotiated multiple times instead of being resolved and progressing to implementation.
  • Backroom complaining and infighting increases, without putting the crucial issues on the table. Everyone sticks to their positions instead of truly collaborating to find best outcomes. People feel trapped, and just put up with things — even as they do a slow burn.
  • Everyone notices and remarks upon repeated errors, while simultaneously tolerating mistakes, missed deadlines, and general sloppiness. This laxness is sometimes accompanied by lapses in normal protocol, and other times by excessive, slavish following of protocol.
  • Individuals at all levels demonstrate significant lack of self-awareness about how their own behaviors contribute to the overall lack of accountability.
  • Leaders shift assignments and priorities without any explanation or apparent logic. They may ask for mutually incompatible outcomes or assign multiple people to the same territory. The next level down bears the brunt of resolving the conflicts and confusion.
  • Leaders expect employees to “get the job done” without providing crucial tools, resources, or input, despite claiming personal concern about individual wellbeing and group success. They may avoid candid discussion even though they talk about their “open door” and the importance of participation.
  • Virtually everyone feels a sense of impending doom about being held responsible for things they can’t control — while simultaneously dreading that results really will turn out badly.

In next week’s post, we’ll look at how to help people learn to stand up for accountability instead of having to be held to it.