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Part 1 of the Effective ManagersTM Understanding Accountability Series We all have obligations at work. These obligations are typically thought of as accountability.  These obligations that result in our being accountable come at us from many directions… our peers, our clients, our subordinates, and yes even our bosses! And how we are assigned these things for which we have accountability varies greatly. So accountability is important, but what is it exactly? For managers, ensuring subordinates feel that accountability while executing strategy is no easy feat. In part one of a multipart series, I discuss key concepts of accountability—what it is, how it impacts managers and how to approach this critical piece of the puzzle for effective management.What is accountability, and how does it impact managerial success?

What do we mean by accountability? We often hear it used to describe businesses that are “not being held accountable” or individuals “needing to take more accountability” for their actions. Are you accountable? Am I? How is accountability used in the organization and what impact does it have on the day-to-day job managers’ need to do?

The starting point for understanding accountability in the organization is work. Work is at the core of achieving strategy and vision. While most organizations today do a decent job of outlining a 3, 5 or 10-year plan for success, few follow through. Fast-forward a few years from the approval of the strategy and many well-developed strategies are no longer clear. Why? One reason is misaligned accountability, and the fact that managers have an increasingly difficult time getting everyone on the same page when it comes to strategy execution.

Several years ago we set out to discover how managers could be more successful and this is what we found.

In a major research program partnered with the University of Ottawa, we identified a direct relationship between accountability and effectiveness. In organizations with high accountability, managers were more effective in their work, and thus, more successful. The correlation between accountability and effectiveness was both high (.67), and highly statistically significant, illustrating a critical relationship between these two concepts.

If more accountability equals more effectiveness, then why the disconnect?As a starting point, there is no commonly understood definition of accountability. So, we created a working definition that consists of three main components:

    • An obligation. There must be an obligation or duty to do something where someone is held to account.
    • An action. An individual is held to account for not just results, but also, actions. More than simply getting something done, accountability involves how it gets done.
    • A “specified other”. Beyond holding yourself liable, accountability requires a ‘specified other’ that holds you to account for doing something. In an organization, this is traditionally a manager.

Accountability is:

An obligation
for which one can be held to account
for one’s results and one’s actions
by a specified other.

What is it about accountability that makes it so difficult to understand?

Accountability versus responsibility. Accountability isn’t the easiest term to grasp, and there’s often a tendency to confuse it with responsibility. Here’s how the two are different. With accountability, someone is held to account and the action must result. By contrast, responsibility is more values driven, coming from within. In other words, one who is accountable must complete something. But one who feels responsible truly believes that what they need to do is important. To be clear, responsibility is essential in organizations. Workers should feel responsible for doing good work and completing tasks. Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between responsibility and accountability.

Felt accountability versus clarity of accountability. In addition to confusing accountability with responsibility, through our research we discovered that there are two dimensions of accountability. Felt accountability is how strongly you feel accountable for doing good work. Clarity of accountability is how clear you are about those things for which you are accountable. In our research database, managers self reported 8.7 out of 10 for felt accountability—a clear indication that they felt fairly accountable for their work. Interestingly, they had much less clarity of accountability, identifying 7.1 out of 10.

Clarity of accountability is critical at every level in the organization.

In many organizations, strategic direction is articulated by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). But, if he or she isn’t clear with subordinate Vice Presidents in terms of what they are accountable for doing, then organizational drift occurs. From the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to the Chief Operations Officer (CFO) through all the VP-level roles, each VP looks at work through her or his own unique filter, impacting how they execute and set priorities.

Clarity of accountability, starting at the very top and throughout the entire organization ensures everyone is pulling the company in the same direction, reinforcing each other’s work with complete transparency about what they are accountable for. When this happens, smart decision-making occurs and employees take initiatives with certainty that they are helping the organization do the work that is most important.

What is the lesson for managers?

In many cases, managerial effectiveness pivots on whether or not clear accountabilities are set for employees and subordinates. The workforce will undoubtedly feel accountable for doing good work. The question is whether or not they will feel accountable for doing the right work—that which will help achieve the strategy.

This is the definition of an effective manager, and why accountability is so important.

Managers must define clear expectations so that their team members know exactly what it is they will be held accountable for as they go about their work.

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What is accountability in organizations?

Accountability is not used in the same way by everyone. This  short video, less than 10 minutes, will help you understand what accountability is.

This video is Part 1 in the Effective ManagersTM Understanding Accountability series.

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See the Video on our YouTube Channel

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