One of the top professional buzzwords that project managers throw around is accountability. Everyone knows someone who should be held accountable for their actions, but few people admit that they need to step up and take responsibility.
Accountability is a key element to project management because it allows team members to own mistakes and take steps to rectify them. Without accountability, more projects will run late or lack key elements. Here are a few best practices you can follow within your company to improve accountability on all levels.
Accountability Starts at the Beginning of Every Project
If accountability isn’t a core value or expectation at the start of a project, then managers will struggle to implement new practices halfway through. The project sponsor and the project manager both need to make the accountability process clear at the start of the project.
Michael Roberts explains that project sponsors should let the team know they will be holding the project managers accountable. The project managers, then, need to communicate that they will be holding the team accountable. Any existing systems, tools or plans to maintain accountability should be discussed in this meeting.
All Employees Can Practice Accountability
While the PM and sponsor play key roles in establishing accountability, everyone on the team will use this value to accomplish their parts of the project. One way to involve team members in the process is by explaining how everyone’s assignments affect the finished project as a whole.
“Don’t let employees operate in a silo,” Rick Lepsinger at OnPoint Consulting writes. “Make sure they understand how their tasks fit into the larger plan and recognize the rest of the team is relying on them to accomplish their part.”
After you explain the big picture objectives and tasks in a project, acknowledge that there might be challenges along the way. When your team knows they will have to be flexible, they can prepare to accept additional responsibility.
“Be honest with your team,” writes Adam Roozen, CEO at Echidna. “Be open about the fact that you are excited for the challenge ahead, that you will fail at times, but that you … will endure and persevere.”
Roozen uses the example of breaking an arm to describe accountability. You can envision what breaking your arm looks like and how you will react, but that doesn’t prepare you for the pain and stress of actually doing it. When everyone on your team embraces accountability, you can prepare for new experiences and unforeseen challenges.
Use Feedback to Constructively Hold Employees Accountable
Along with clear goals and communication, successful project managers should provide clear feedback, Peter Bregman writes.
Bregman explains that if you as a PM have done everything right, including setting clear goals and opportunities for measurement, then providing feedback shouldn’t be a problem. Both parties should be able to see what went right or wrong and how it could have been avoided.
With feedback, you can then create solutions to avoid any mistakes in the future.
Details Are Critical for Holding Team Members Accountable
Once the importance of accountability and teamwork is established at the start of the project, it’s up to project managers to provide the information and tools as possible to help team members succeed.
“Specifics matter with accountability,” Bruce Harpham writes. “You can’t hand a task to a group of people. You can only hand a task to a specific person. It’s a critical distinction.”
How can you expect to hold your team members accountable when it’s not clear what they need to do and how they need to do it?
Lee Colan agrees that details are essential for accountability. “When specificity goes up, things like miscommunication, rework and frustration all go down,” he writes. “You must have specific expectations, specific coaching and specific language.”
Personal Relationships Help Get to the Root of the Problem
The term accountability gets a bad rap because it conjures rhetoric of lazy employees who cut corners or rush against deadlines. However, accountability has a strong personal element, and project managers can tap into these personal connects to understand why projects go awry.
“When people truly trust and depend on each other, relational consequences far outweigh any punitive ones set forth by a company or manager,” Casey Miller writes at Six and a Half Consulting. “Focus on creating an environment of transparency and honest communication.”
Your understanding and care as a person can go a long way toward building accountability, and will typically work better than strictly operating as a project manager over a team.
Identify External Factors
The team at Solarity explains that employees who start missing deadlines or submitting poor work are often affected by outside forces. For example:
- Is the employee apathetic about their work or disgruntled about the job?
- Is he or she going through personal issues that are affecting daily performance?
- Is he or she trying to complete tasks but running into roadblocks?
As a project manager, your goal is to hold employees accountable, but that doesn’t always mean taking punitive action for failure. In many of these cases, accountability from the PM standpoint means understanding what is preventing them from doing their best work.
Motivate Employees to Work Toward a Common Goal
Randy Pennington agrees that the mindset of employees is important when creating a culture of accountability.
When employees treat their jobs as a simple exchange of time for money, then they’re not going to be invested in their work. In some cases, their motivation is more focused on doing enough work to not rock the boat instead of creating something they are genuinely proud of.
Pennington emphasizes that a relationship, not a position, is a better tool for influencing the performance of others.
Accountability and Ownership Work Together
Other management experts are working to rebrand the concept of accountability from a punitive theory to a positive value.
Clint Lewis, President of Zoetis International Operations, uses the phrase “Run it Like You Own It” when he discusses accountability. He wants to create a culture in his own company that engages employees and encourages them to take ownership in their roles. It doesn’t matter who actually owns a project; employees are encouraged to act as if they own everything they work on.
Pairing Accountability With Ownership
Accountability and ownership work together during a project. While managers hold team members accountable for completing tasks, employees need to own their assignments and understand that they’re responsible for the success of those particular tasks.
“If ownership is about taking initiative, accountability is about follow through and getting done what you said you’d get done,” writes Warren Tanner, co-founder of SoapBox Innovations. “It’s recognizing that other team members are dependant on the results of your work and not wanting to let them down.”
Together, when there are high levels of ownership and accountability on a team, trust is formed.
Successful Accountability Flows Across All Levels of a Company
Accountability in project management often means holding people at various levels responsible for their roles. Tom Loeblein recently shared the challenges he has experienced working as part of a leadership team where everyone is an equal partner.
“It requires an incredible amount of trust,” he writes. “[Accountability] also requires that each partner clearly understand the vision and mission of the firm and are able to put the good of the firm above self.”
When employees own their assignments and team members focus on the good of the company, then accountability becomes less of a punishment and more of a tool to reaching project goals.
Healthy Conflict Resolution Paves the Way for Accountability
One of the main reasons project managers struggle with accountability is because they lack the right conflict-management skills to address the problem. Instead, they hope the issue will resolve itself or plead with upper management to talk to those involved.
“When you decide not to call someone on their broken promise and ill-managed commitment, you’re, albeit inadvertently, being part of the problem,” Margie Warrell writes for Leaders in Heels. “The one thing you can count on is to expect more of it. More broken promises. More cut corners. More well worn excuses. … And more of the stress, frustration and resentment you’d much rather avoid.”
Accountability and management need conflict in order to succeed. The challenge is addressing that conflict in a healthy way.
Conflict Resolution Tools to Foster Accountability
Randy Hall at 4th Gear Consulting has developed a model for fostering constructive conflict. Instead of trying to implement blanket concepts across the company, he developed four opposing concepts to help employees frame their thoughts:
- Future vs. Past
- Solution vs. Problem
- Ownership vs. Blame
- Proactive vs. Reactive
An employee who plays the blame game and focuses on problems and failures isn’t going to be accountable for themselves or others. By changing the way of thinking to focus on solutions and improvements in the future, the whole team is able to approach problems with a healthier mindset.
“When managers are trained to face conflict and work to resolve it constructively, rather than looking the other way and avoiding it, that too becomes a key element of accountability,” Victor Lipman writes. The key is resolving conflict constructively; managers can focus on solutions and next steps instead of using conflict to highlight problems.
Accountability doesn’t have to be a threat for project managers to wield over employees. By setting key goals, practicing healthy conflict resolution techniques, and focusing on the details of a project, everyone on the team can practice accountability and focus on moving the company forward.