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How to Hold Your Co-workers Accountable

Sharlyn Lauby

Accountability is not a form of punishment. But somehow, accountability has become synonymous with bad behavior. Because of one wants to hold anyone accountable because they're afraid of being labeled a meanie. Or, at best a micromanager.

The word "accountable" means answerable for actions or decisions. To hold someone accountable means the person is being asked to explain why they did (or didn't do) something. In our personal lives, we hold people accountable all the time. For example, growing up, my mother would say, "Why are you wearing that to school?" as a way of holding me accountable for my attire.

This shouldn't imply that the person being held accountable did something wrong. Going back to my school example, my reply could have been "Today is school colors day." Or jeans day or whatever day it was. Accountability is about closing the communications loop.

When we don't hold people accountable, the communications loop never closes. Incomplete communication leads to a whole host of organizational issues including mistakes, misunderstandings, and mistrust.

Close the loop

The answer is to have the conversation, close the loop, and hold people accountable. But it's easier said than done. Here are a few steps to think about when it's time to hold someone accountable:

1. Remember the purpose

Holding another person accountable isn't about calling them out or embarrassing them, it's about closing a communication loop. This will help with the next step.

2. Tone matters

One of the reasons holding others accountable can be challenging is it can sound accusatory. At this point, it's possible you don't have all the information. The tone should be about understanding.

3. Ask a question

Unless you absolutely know that the other person did something they shouldn't have or completely dropped the ball, the best approach might be to turn the statement into a question.

Instead of: "You didn't file the TPS reports."

Consider: "Did the TPS reports get filed yesterday?"

It's possible the other person will respond with "No, I had some computer difficulties and wasn't able to get them filed. But I did call, and we were granted a two-day extension." Communication loop closed.

This leads to the second part of the accountability issue - holding ourselves accountable. On some level, it would be wonderful never to have to hold another person accountable because they did it for themselves.

Looking back, I could have said to my mother the night before, "Tomorrow is jeans day at school. I'm thinking about wearing this. What do you think?" Or the employee who says to their manager, "I know the TPS reports are due today. I've been having computer challenges all afternoon, so I called and got us a two-day extension." No questioning, no wondering.

Building trust and stronger teams

Accountability should not be thought of as accusatory or defensive. It should be viewed as informative. A person should be willing to share the reason for a decision. Proactive communication is better than reactive. If you're wondering whether to share certain updates, just ask the person.

For example, the employee who told their manager about the TPS reports. At the end of that conversation, simply ask, "Would you like to know about these issues in the future?" The manager is now in a position to say "yes" or "no" and the employee can proceed accordingly.

Creating a culture of accountability builds trust and strengthens work teams. It's not an action to be avoided. Quite the contrary. Accountability should take place on both an individual and organizational level.

Your Turn: How do you create a culture of accountability in your workplace?

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