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LEADERSHIP: Building Accountability

Last week I had the opportunity to work with and train 15 scientists from a pharmaceutical company in a new leadership series. We started discussing accountability, especially how to get others to take accountability when they have no positional power to make them do so. They experience a lot of difficulty with this because sometimes people just ignore their emails, act confused or bewildered by the task, plead the “I’m too busy” mantra, refuse to take responsibility for their errors, or just miss deadlines with no apologies.

When these people are confronted about the behavior, I asked the group how they responded. What dodge ball techniques did accountability-resistors use? Some said people just plead that they are too busy, some respond by saying “talk to my boss,” others give half-answers and suggest that it’s not in their job description. Sometimes accountability-resistors turn the tables and begin to question everything the other person is doing.

Then we began to explore what current remedies these scientists are using to address the problem. The most common answer from the group was, “I take it back and do it myself, so I know it will get done.” In other words, the hard worker continues to over-function, while allowing the accountability-dodger to under-function. Others said that sometimes they’ll go to the functional manager for support or try to explain the importance of the task. Some just repeat the request, over and over, hoping for a different result.

There must be a better answer. I believe success in getting people to assume accountability is in how the task is framed up front. How were the task and the expected accountability explained? Was accountability accepted by the other person? Was a plan in place for periodic reports on progress? Was it decided how questions would be handled, and what to do if confusion or delays emerged? If all of that is done up front, then it is easy to say to the individual, “When you made the agreement to do X and accepted responsibility for it, you were agreeing to move the task forward despite obstacles. I’m struggling because I don’t see you taking accountability now and it’s important that you do so. Do you feel that you’ve taken accountability for what was agreed to in the beginning?” 

Let’s have some discussion about this issue of accountability in a world where our authority is limited. What best strategies have worked for you?

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