Effective interpersonal communication, creative problem-solving, a teamwork-oriented mentality, the ability to learn quickly and adapt to changing circumstances … These are among the most critical soft skills that professionals – and organizations at large – must master to succeed in marketplaces when consumer expectations are higher than ever and the next major disruption is always just around the corner.

Coined by the U.S. military in the 1970s, today, the term “soft skills” is typically used to refer to a broad range of social and communication skills as well as a host of personality traits, behaviors and non-technical competencies. A strong set of soft skills enables an individual to collaborate effectively, navigate social landscapes adeptly and perform well in complex professional situations. When combined with “hard skills” – or measurable, teachable abilities – soft skills can drive greater individual and organizational achievement.

Rethinking Accountability as a Soft Skill

In business, accountability is among the most widely championed soft skills, with workplace development experts and corporate leaders alike urging employees to “take accountability” for their role in contributing to underperformance. Unfortunately, not only is this advice rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of accountability as necessarily punitive and retroactive, but it also mischaracterizes accountability as a soft skill – as something that is amorphous, unquantifiable and unteachable.

Further, unlike many soft skills, accountability has been shown to have a statistically significant impact on business outcomes. According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, a high level of shared accountability in the workplace is a necessary condition of translating the empowerment of employees into improved organizational performance.

As such, accountability is not, strictly speaking, a soft skill. Rather, as defined in the New York Times bestseller “The Oz Principle,” accountability is a “personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.” When leaders recognize this choice as something that is teachable and measurable – i.e., a hard skill – they can wield its power to achieve a slew of top-line business goals.

Articulating Desired Results Lays the Groundwork for Teaching Accountability

More often than not, leaders either fail to identify and communicate organizational goals or put forth a laundry list of priorities so complex that they’re impossible for employees to grasp, let alone remember. In fact, Partners in Leadership’s “Workplace Accountability Study” – which surveyed over 40,000 professionals – found that a mere 15% of workplace leaders clearly define their top-line organizational goals.

When employees lack a set of specific, accessible targets, engagement and productivity are often replaced by finger-pointing and excuse-making. However, when leaders purposefully define three to five meaningful, memorable and measurable desired results – and proactively communicate them to employees at every level of an organization – they pave a clear path toward collective progress. As leaders continuously refine these goals, they’re simultaneously building a progressively sturdier framework within which employees can understand and practice accountability.

Articulating desired results is, therefore, the first step in teaching accountability as a hard skill. Teaching accountability requires leaders to provide a formalized structure in which all employees are encouraged to practice accountability in their daily work. Such a structure helps them master accountability by consistently and confidently following four critical steps:

  1. Seeing performance gaps that are hampering progress toward organizational goals.
  2. Owning those gaps and the solutions needed to close them.
  3. Solving performance problems through creative troubleshooting.
  4. Doing what they have promised to do by executing on organizational goals.

This road map for practicing accountability combats finger-pointing, low levels of engagement and internal silos by empowering each employee to cross strict role boundaries when necessary and to develop innovative solutions that benefit the organization as a whole. When individuals or, better yet, entire teams follow this map, they propel their organization toward – and often beyond – its top-line goals.

Savvy practitioners of accountability understand that the skill can be taught through a proven methodology. After establishing a focus around top-line goals, it is the complete psychological ownership and commitment to proactive problem-solving that effectively eliminate the behaviors undermining organizational success.

Measuring Accountability in Your Workforce

Measurability is an essential component of any hard skill. Even when leaders recognize accountability as both teachable and formulaic, they are often hesitant to categorize it as a hard skill, because they do not believe they can measure it accurately. However, this belief is misinformed: Accountability can and should be measured.

One way leaders can gauge approximate rates of accountability within their organization is by measuring progress toward desired results (which, as stated, should be measurable themselves). For instance, if a leader finds that one of their key performance indicators is 10% below where it should be to guarantee the desired annual revenue growth, they can dig deeper to uncover how a lack of accountability may be contributing to the problem.

To achieve a more precise measurement of organizational performance, leaders should use a tool that incorporates three concepts: whether your workforce is accountable, the impact that accountability has on the business and a solution for fixing the gaps. Accountability typically includes seeking feedback, psychological ownership, creative problem-solving and effective actions. These four critical organizational performance factors tie into the organization’s ability to grow, speed to market, ability to deal with change, achievement and engagement.

Once an organization can measure these key critical components of driving growth, the key to success is an action plan for solving gaps within the organization itself. For example, your L&D team might see that for the statement, “You are comfortable asking for feedback from others,” the average employee score is 4.5 out of 7. You could then home in on the breakdown of this score distribution and discover that a large percentage of employees feel highly uncomfortable seeking feedback. Finally, you could tackle this problem with an informed understanding of why some employees feel this way – perhaps they don’t feel valued at work or included in team decision-making – and then implement training on the leader and employee level to fix this gap. This “measure, analyze, fix the gap” training approach is key to corporate agility – which can be learned.

In viewing accountability as something that is learned and honed through practice — with specific indicators of mastery and a system for quantification — leaders benefit from the realization that accountability is a hard skill with measurable, value-adding potential. Ultimately, fostering greater accountability within an organization accelerates and optimizes its ability to deliver on crucial top-line results.