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4 principles of accountability you wish your boss knew

Whenever we expect something from someone — be it our employees, our spouse or even ourselves — we earnestly want that person to take responsibility, to follow through, to be accountable. But we often shoot ourselves in the foot by making expectations that aren’t specific, measurable and repeatable. Big, lofty and high-level are good qualities for goals, but goals are good for nothing until they’re connected to simple steps that can be taken and tracked again and again.

We all know accountability in business is critical, yet many companies large and small struggle finding and implementing accountability processes that both management and staff are happy to embrace and sustain. That’s because most approaches to accountability are too broad and one-sided — they serve the people making the requests but not the people tasked with fulfilling the requests.

Consider the most common culprit behind the lack of accountability in business: the job description. We’ve all had them, read them, and some of us are even guilty of writing them. They reek of broad, vague phrases like “provide excellent customer service” and “achieve operational objectives” — yes, this is what we as managers want our employees to do conceptually, but what do we want them to do practically? The next time you want your employees — or yourself — to be accountable, ditch the high-level blah blah and implement these four accountability principles.

Principle 1: Accountability is easier with specific, actionable requests

From job descriptions to day-to-day interactions, we often make abstract requests of our employees yet wonder why our employees don’t give us the results we want. Here’s a hint: they’re not sure what we actually want them to do! Just as badly as we want results and accountability from our employees, they earnestly need clear direction and specific assignments from us. When a job is broken down into specific tasks, it creates an inherent sense of accountability as the person responsible for the job can actually grasp what we want them to do.

Principle 2: Accountability is a byproduct of measurability

Just think of being given the task “maintain contact with former customers” versus “email 10 former customers daily.” The first task is vague — does “contact” mean via emails, phone calls or face-to-face meetings? And how many customers must you contact to complete the task — how will you know when you’re done? And how often are you supposed to do the task? Good luck feeling empowered and motivated to be accountable, let alone to actually get the task done. The second task, on the other hand, is clear, actionable and measureable. You can envision yourself writing and sending the emails, you can track your progress, and you’ll know when you’ve completed the task each day. When ambiguous assignments are turned into trackable tasks, expectations become explicit and accountability becomes automatic.

Principle 3: Accountability isn’t a one-time deal

Every boss wants their employees to be accountable not just sometimes, but all the time. To help this actually happen, the business needs a work process structured around routines — sets of “each,” “every” and “always” tasks that make work come alive. When employees know that each morning they have a check-in with the team, every Friday they report on their metrics, and that they always review last month’s performance at a team lunch, they not only always have something to prepare for and look forward to, they don’t have to start each day wondering “What am I supposed to get done today?”

Principle 4: Accountability is maintained by routines

With routines, employees have more predictability in their workload and more consistency in their schedules, making it easier to stay accountable to what’s expected of them. When you make a routine, it’s not set in stone. The truth is, routines need to be updated routinely. With explicit routines that break down goals into tasks that are specific, measurable and repeatable, you and your employees will always have a clear picture of what’s being done now, making it easier to evaluate current performance and update assignments moving forward.

The next time you want your employees to take more responsibility, follow through and be accountable, do everyone — including yourself — a favor and organize your expectations into routines that have specific, measurable, repeatable tasks. You’ll both have less wasted time and frustration and be primed for more sustainable, scalable success.

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