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The Gift of Accountability

One of my first jobs in college was working in a private jewelry store. It was in this setting that I had one of my first lessons in accountability in the workplace and how accountability changes everything.

My responsibilities in the jewelry store ran the gamut from waiting on customers, to taking out the garbage, to keeping the store clean. As my responsibilities grew, I was eventually responsible for measuring out the gold we would use to create gold chains. Once I measured out the designated length, the jeweler, Jim Stevens, would cut the gold, and create the jewelry piece. Measuring the gold accurately was incredibly important because if the chain was too long you were giving away 10% or 15% more gold because the price for the chain you were creating was already set, or too short, the entire chain (or at least part of it) was completely wasted because you could not shortchange a customer. Either way, an error ended up costing hundreds of dollars.

One day, after measuring out the gold for a new chain he had just sold, Jim said, "Now you cut it," as he handed me the cutting tool. My eyes widened and he looked at me and said "It's different when you are the one who has to cut it, isn't it?" And in that moment I realized the difference between being involved and being accountable. Being accountable for the final cut of gold, I measured that length of gold chain at least four times (something, I'd never done before). Accountability had sharpened my preparation and my focus. It was a lesson I'd never forget.

Accountability and follow up

Early in my career I thought that accountability was about telling others what was expected. The years have taught me that accountability is so much more. I believe in a work setting accountability is a two way street. Its not just about telling others what to do, its about making sure they have the tools and the environment to get it done, and its about regularly checking in to determine if those accountable are on track, and if not what to do to help them get on track. This requires nothing more than a simple conversation with your direct report ultimately asking "What can I do to help you"? When you delegate a project, it is very important to set up regular meetings to check in so that you've established a formal process for feedback and course correction.

Accountability and performance

I once read that "Every employee is a volunteer. You can buy people's backs, but they must volunteer their hearts and minds". In organizational cultures that lead through fear, it is relatively easy to get people to show up, but much harder to help people operate in the performance zone. Fear based cultures operate on scarcity while passion-based cultures operate in abundance. We've all been exposed to both type of environments and the difference is clear. Some of the key findings:

  1. Increased motivation and performance: Studies have shown that when employees feel accountable for their work, they are more likely to be motivated, focused, and diligent, resulting in improved performance. This is particularly true when employees are held accountable for their actions and understand the consequences of their performance (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999; Hall & Ferris, 2011).

  2. Enhanced goal commitment: Research has demonstrated that accountability can lead to greater goal commitment, which in turn boosts performance. When employees are held accountable for specific goals, they are more likely to engage in goal-oriented behaviors and work harder to achieve those goals (Locke & Latham, 2002; Tubbs, 1993).

  3. Improved decision-making: Accountability has been linked to better decision-making, as individuals are more likely to consider multiple perspectives, engage in critical thinking, and evaluate their options carefully when they know they will be held accountable for their choices (Tetlock, 1983; Tetlock, Skitka, & Boettger, 1989).

  4. Social facilitation: In some cases, the presence of others or the knowledge that one's performance will be evaluated can lead to improved performance due to social facilitation (Zajonc, 1965). However, this effect may be limited to simple or well-learned tasks and can lead to decreased performance in complex or novel tasks (Baron, 1986).

  5. Negative effects of accountability pressure: On the other hand, too much emphasis on accountability can have negative consequences, such as increased stress, decreased creativity, and reduced risk-taking. When employees feel overly monitored or scrutinized, they may focus more on avoiding mistakes than on delivering innovative solutions (Amabile, 1998; Oldham & Cummings, 1996).

  6. The role of feedback: The impact of accountability on work performance may also be influenced by the type and quality of feedback provided. Constructive feedback can enhance performance, while negative or punitive feedback can lead to decreased motivation and lower performance (Ilgen, Fisher, & Taylor, 1979; Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

The gift of accountability in business is given to those who are reliable, trustworthy, and follow through on their commitments. In business true accountability is an opportunity to demonstrate these skills; it is earned. As your career and responsibilities grow, just remember. .. measure four times, cut once! (Thank you for this early lesson, Jim)


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