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How to get Accountability in the Workplace Right

Accountability is a very important part of empowerment. This means that accountability in the workplace is very important. But getting accountability right is actually a delicate balancing act. In this post I want to explore the question of how to get accountability right.

Empowerment starts with identifying a decision or responsibility to hand over. Once the decision has been identified, it is necessary to provide the means the person would need to succeed, and coach the person to make sure they are able to competently make the decision or take care of the responsibility. Once the means and ability have been provided, it is necessary to hold the person accountable. So, these are the three things needed for empowerment to work; means, ability and accountability.

Leaders must however be very deliberate when empowering people that each of these three things, i.e. means, ability and accountability, are dealt with appropriately.

Means and Ability First:

The first thing that leaders must be deliberate about remembering is that means and ability must always come before accountability. You are not in a position to hold someone accountable until you have provided them with both the means and the ability to do what is required of them.




Accountability is the end game. Accountable people are people who are mature enough to own their responsibilities and concern themselves with the contributions they are required to make. Saying that accountability is the end game indicates clearly that it must come towards the end of the empowerment process.

If means and ability are not in place and you start holding someone accountable for performance, you are being too harsh. We call this the hard mistake. Leaders make the hard mistake when they hold a person accountable when that person did not have either the means or the ability.

AccountabilityAccountability and Standards:

A standard is one of the most important things that need to be provided in order for a leader to be in a position to hold someone accountable. Running through the middle of accountability is this issue of standards. One of the things that most often ties a leader’s hands is the failure to provide high standards that are clear and properly communicated.

The first question I would ask a leader who is struggling with accountability issues would be “have you set clear standards?” I recently had exactly this conversation with a leader who was struggling with the issue of dealing with procrastination in staff. His staff members were consistently failing to complete their tasks promptly.

After listening and pushing him on a number of points it became clear that his problems all stemmed from his failure to properly set and communicate clear standards. What I sent him away to do was to clarify for himself what exactly his people needed to be doing. Only once he fully understood that and communicated it to his people was he actually in a position to be holding any of them accountable.

The 4 Possibilities of Accountability:

Once a leader has put a clear standard in place, provided the rest of the necessary means and coached the ability, the leader needs to hold people accountable. Holding a person accountable must involve doing one of 4 possible things.

Firstly, if someone has been negligent or careless about maintaining standards, the leader needs to warn that person. A warning acts as a firm reminder to the person that they have dropped below standard and they should lift their game and get back in line as it were.

If the person has been warned numerous times and keeps making the same mistake then it becomes evident that it is no longer simply a matter of carelessness but is now crossing the line towards becoming deliberate. In any case where deviation from standard is the consequence of deliberate choice, ranging from willful negligence right to fraud, it is clear that something more than a warning is required. In such instances it is appropriate to take some disciplinary action, ranging from a hearing to dismissal.

Accountability however is not just about doing the mean stuff. Accountability means a person reaps the consequences of their actions. When these are positive, they should reap positive consequences. So, if someone has been careful to meet standards they should be praised for their diligence about meeting standards.

Furthermore, if they went above and beyond by demonstrating a real will to go the extra mile, the person should be rewarded.  When it comes to rewards, it is not really important what the reward is. This is because it is not really about the reward but rather what the reward tells the person about their own performance. Rewards help the person recognise the difference between simply meeting standard and actually going beyond it. We all want to feel like we are achieving a level of mastery. Rewards help us know when we are getting this right and so can make a huge difference to how engaged we are with our tasks.

The Soft Mistake:

Before ending I just want to warn against one of the worst mistakes a leader can make when dealing with accountability issues. Possibly the worst mistake a leader can make is to treat an accountability issues as if it was a means or an ability issue. In other words, sometimes, when leaders should be holding their people accountable, they instead send their people for more coaching or buy them more advanced equipment or whatever.

If the performance or behaviour issue has nothing to do with either means or ability, then it is crippling to treat it as anything other than an accountability issue. When you treat an accountability issue as if it was a means and ability issue you are being too soft so we call this the soft mistake. The soft mistake is infinitely worse than the hard mistake because it creates a culture of mediocrity. You are essentially saying, “it is ok to disregard standards, I will just send you on training if you do.”

At least the hard mistake pushes people and stretches them. The soft mistake creates victims who winge every time someone gets unhappy with their performance.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.

6 Responses to “How to get Accountability in the Workplace Right”

By Pakane - 15 April 2017 Reply

Wonderful read, thank you.

By Assad Schuitema - 16 April 2017 Reply

Thank you Pakane

By faithj@tlc.org.za - 15 April 2017 Reply

This was really helpful! Thanks, Cuz!

By Assad Schuitema - 16 April 2017 Reply

Thank you Faith, Much appreciated!

By MELANIE Sharland - 19 April 2017 Reply

Thank you so much for this article. I am putting it as the only item at my next management meeting. Most helpful

By Assad Schuitema - 19 April 2017 Reply

Fantastic, thank you Melanie.

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