Let’s Debunk the Myth that “Accountable” is a Bad Word

Three years as a CEO has taught me many things, but one lesson-learned springs up over and over: It’s absolutely mandatory to set clear expectations in the workplace, and it’s really challenging to do exactly that.

Clear expectations are the only way any colleague or associate is going to know what to do with any given task, job, goal or project. (For further explanation, this article in Forbes is a good resource.)

Most of us know the hit list of how to set expectations. First, of course, is to be clear with yourself. If you don’t know what you want and need from a colleague or associate (or friend, or loved one, for that matter!) how can you be clear with them?  

So make sure you’ve done your self-reflection, data crunching, sales report reviewing, homework before trying to communicate with others.

Next, communicate your needs with the person or team you’re managing. This can be tricky and usually requires both face-to-face meetings and then writing things down. Remember, people have different perspectives and often see things only from their own point of view. The simplest of words mean different things to different people — so make sure your definition of “urgent” and their definition of “urgent” match! If you mean “next week” but they’re thinking “tomorrow” that’s a big difference. The stress level of “by tomorrow” is dramatically higher than “next week.” Making sure perspectives match is key to the ability to do the job or task at hand well, or at all.

And this isn’t a one-way street. You need to be clear about your needs, including giving people the big-picture goal or strategy for context, and they need to enter into an honest agreement to meet the expectation because they are going to be held accountable.

Accountability is something I’ve struggled with myself. It’s easy to overcommit and then not do a good job of prioritizing and re-communicating. When I fail to meet deadlines, it is typically for this very reason: I took on more than I could handle and never went back to recalibrate expectations. By not going back to those whom I made commitments to they did not have the ability to help me prioritize or reassign the task to someone who had the ability to get it accomplished on time.  

My greatest struggle setting clear expectations often comes from the same place.  I know my team members are extremely busy and out of respect for that, I do not want to create unrealistic deadlines.

Accountability isn’t all about blame, or finger-pointing when something goes wrong. It’s not an opportunity to scold or play “gotcha.” Accountability is more strategic than that—it’s both sides being responsible and delivering on commitments in order to reach the goal.

There’s a great article by Peter Bregman, in the Harvard Business Review, that details out the five steps necessary to create a system where holding people accountable is possible, positive and will get the outcome we, as leaders, desire. In a nutshell, clear expectations, capability (do they have the skill set and resources needed?) feedback, measurements and consequences give people the ability to be accountable for outcomes—both good and bad.

At Pacesetter, I try to encourage clear expectations and support accountability by always asking if the date I am requesting is realistic. If someone says it is not, I ask what else they are working on to determine if I can help them reprioritize to meet my original deadline. If I determine their other priorities must come first, I have the ability to get it done with someone else’s help or agree that it can’t be done until a certain date. Either way, my expectations are now realistic and more likely to be met. I always try to encourage my team members to say no. We all want to say yes to everything to better support the team and provide our customers with the “Ultimate Customer Experience,” and that can only happen when we learn to say no to some things.

In the end, clear expectations, communicated well and agreed to by all, will help people reach goals, perform well, and be accountable for outcomes. It may be hard to get the hang of at first, but once you do the difference will be extraordinary.