There are a number of well-written contributions on the topic of accountability, none better and more practical than one authored by Peter Bregman.

The central theme of Bregman’s advice is “contractual clarity.” Do you want to embed accountability into your culture? Set and communicate clear expectations, establish and communicate clear performance measures and provide clear feedback along the way. To that sage advice, there are a few things I’d like to add:

  1. You can’t hold people accountable for things they don’t know how to do.
  2. The most valuable contributors on any team are the ones that have earned the right to hold themselves accountable.

Consider these two statements in the context of Situational Leadership®. As you may know, the first question a situational leader considers is, “Is this person performing (this particular task) at a sustained, acceptable level?”

If the answer to that question is “no,” congratulations, you have uncovered some very important information. Accountability (as it applies to all aspects associated with performing the task in question) rests with the manager. It is truly that simple. An individual that is learning or developing (regardless of their task-related confidence, commitment or motivation to perform) cannot legitimately be held accountable for delivering desired outcomes or results.

Now, the key word in that last sentence is legitimately. People that don’t know what they are doing are routinely “thrown to the wolves.” Doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t sincere and unintended consequences any time an inexperienced member of the team is “thrown under” the proverbial bus.

Consider an alternative. When people are learning or developing, the manager is responsible for both the “what” and the “how. This translates to the manager’s active and intentional engagement with people on their team that are in developmental mode. It means closely supervising the incremental steps those individuals need to take as they transition from novice to expert. In Situational Leadership® terms, managers need to implement leader-driven approaches and avoid the temptation to pre-maturely delegate or empower. On the basis of our collective experience, that is one of those things that can be much easier said than done.

Situational Accountability Blog

As for the second statement above (and based on the findings of motivational researchers from Abraham Maslow to Daniel Pink), many people that have consistently demonstrated the ability to perform a particular task covet the responsibility for delivering the “what” and welcome the personal accountability that goes along with implementing the “how.” It is the key distinction between leader-driven approaches and follower-driven approaches that typically work so well with people that know what they are doing.

In these scenarios, followers quite frequently become the drivers of effective accountability. They seek and establish proactive clarity on task-related expectations, measurement, feedback and consequences (if results aren’t achieved). They instinctively recognize that with autonomy comes responsibility — and they are in no way intimidated by that reality.

If this sounds like common sense, we have achieved our objective. There is no good way to effectively hold people accountable for results if they haven’t been effectively trained, coached and developed along the way.