Accountability is a hot topic in leadership and business development training today. It’s also a somewhat poorly misunderstood concept. People sometimes confuse “accountability” with “responsibility,” or associate accountability with shouldering the blame when something goes wrong. It’s actually much broader than these simple explanations. What really rings true to me about the ancient Roman tradition is that accountability is not just limited to personal liability—it’s so much bigger than that. Being accountable means standing behind—or under!–our products, our teams, and our commitment to overall excellence.
Accountability at work means taking initiative for projects, recognizing signals indicating something’s going wrong, and not only owning up to but also taking action when failure occurs. Check our previous blog post for more on our thoughts about the role of accountability in teamwork.
One of my favorite metaphors for defining accountability is described by former AT&T Chairman C. Michael Armstrong: “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.”
In his book Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results, Richard Lepsinger suggests that a lack of accountability in the workplace causes employees to view their organizational leaders as ineffective and creates a culture of blame. He also describes that a lack of productivity is common in cultures where people aren’t held accountable for their actions.
Inspired by Lepsinger’s perspective on accountability, here a checklist for building a culture of accountability at work:
- Clarify expectations and check for understanding among everyone involved in a project.
- Ensure employees follow through on their commitments.
- Make sure everyone is aware of and agrees to a timetable.
- Build in checkpoints to check progress along the way.
- Build in time to correct errors as needed before the deadline.
- When problems do occur, coach employees to ask themselves these questions: What can I do now to get on track? How can I prevent this problem from happening again? What could I have done to avoid the problem?
And don’t forget to ask yourself and your teams this simple but profound question: Would you stand under the arches you build?