Tapping into the Power of Accountability

We’ve all heard the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility,” which has been attributed both to Winston Churchill and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. I’d suggest a more apt phrase should be “With great accountability comes great power.” Let me explain. 

Two words—responsibility and accountability—in practice are used interchangeably but, in principle, are quite different: 

  • Responsibility can be shared, while accountability cannot.  

  • Responsibility is about what people DO and accountability is about how they THINK.

  • Responsibility is assigned, and accountability is assumed. 

My take is that individuals must choose to be accountable, and that choice is not always easy. Too often, issues of accountability arise only when something goes wrong. That’s why it’s possible for an organization to be responsible without fully being accountable.

Reinforcing Personal Ownership

Your company may have all the hallmarks of effective responsibility—defined job roles, clear reporting structures, performance reviews, and marketplace success—and still have poor accountability. That situation rears its head in some very ugly ways, such as staff claiming that something is “not my job” and blaming other departments, business partners, or subordinates for shortfalls.  

Making a cultural shift takes effort at both the enterprise and, more importantly, the individual levels. Accountability is both a top-down and bottom-up construct, and momentum builds in small but perceptible ways when team results take precedence over a “CYA” mentality. Here are some examples from my world: 

  • A client representative or supervisor puts in a verbal change order on a construction site but the funding end client pushes back on the subcontractor’s invoice since the proper protocol wasn’t followed. The prime contractor should take accountability, meet the client’s service standard, and ensure the subcontractor gets paid for the work performed. 

  • A project manager is consistently late on getting status updates out to the management team. On her own time, she documents internal workflows and roadblocks and fully utilizes project management tools to gain better expertise and improve her communication. She then presents the findings and asks explicitly for help managing priorities and reengineering approval processes. She understood the problem and did the extra work to hold herself accountable to improve her work product.  

  • An entrepreneur weighs the pros and cons of divesting from a larger firm and becoming a small business owner. Recognizing the risks of long lead times, she invests upfront in hardware and software equipment necessary to partner on a promising bid application. She makes sure she has the necessary cash flow and resources to process payroll for a bench before jumping in and hiring new staff. To be an accountable owner, she proactively prepares for the challenges ahead. 

Striving Individually for the Collective Good

When individuals take accountability for tasks in their sphere of influence, as well as for their own career advancement, the organization wins. Accountability forces communication; communication breeds transparency; transparency fuels knowledge; and knowledge creates power. 

Share that power by celebrating victories, recognizing effort and not just accomplishments, and making a corporate commitment to accountability. These guiding principles have made a difference in my own approach to problem-solving and professional career, and I’d love to hear how you put them into practice.