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Too many corporations today claim “accountability” as one of their most important values.
There’s just one problem with that: Accountability isn’t a value.
Values are things people believe in and rally behind (think justice or equality). Accountability is something that people at a company can offer to one another — thus, it’s a skill.
But if accountability is a skill, that means it can be taught, learned, and improved upon, right? Absolutely. That’s why, instead of listing it as a value, companies should be teaching accountability to their employees, giving them the support and resources to learn and hone this important skill.
To understand what we mean, you need to first understand the difference between values and skills.
Values are core beliefs that define and motivate our behavior. Some examples of values are things like trust and respect.
Skills, on the other hand, are talents or abilities that can be developed over time with practice, training, or experience.
Accountability isn’t something that defines who a person is. It’s not what motivates them to behave in certain ways.
Many people are accountable at work, and many others wish there was more accountability in their workplace. That’s because accountability is a skill. It’s like a muscle that needs to be trained regularly to stay at peak performance. Without regular practice, accountability can fade. And without it being taught in the first place, it won’t exist at all.
When we start to see accountability as a skill that needs to be learned, that begs the question: Who is responsible for accountability?
When hiring, particularly for software teams, it’s easy to test for hard skills that are related to the work — things like knowing certain coding languages and being familiar with the right kinds of software to do the job. It’s a lot harder to make sure someone is proficient in soft skills — things like communication, teamwork, and yes, accountability — before making a hire.
So if you want accountability in your workplace, the solution isn’t necessarily to hire people who have already honed that skill. It might be to take responsibility for teaching accountability in your organization.
Take Zappos, for example. New hires at the company are put through a sort of accountability boot camp when they first start: They’re expected to show up on time every day during their training, with no exceptions. Being even a minute late could jeopardize their new job at the company.
That’s a pretty extreme way to teach accountability, but it drives home the point: Organizations that want accountable team members can teach them that skill and help them exercise it regularly to keep it sharp.
But accountability is also a self-driven skill. It can only be learned by team members who want to become more accountable.
It doesn’t take measures as extreme as Zappos’s to start learning better accountability skills. But it does take the right mindset.
Someone who wants to learn accountability needs to want to be accountable. They need to trust themselves and be willing to own the results of their work.
Then, like working out any other muscle, use these steps to train yourself in accountability.
Before taking any other steps toward learning accountability, set goals for yourself and what you want to learn.
Define what you want to accomplish and why. It may also be helpful to set deadlines for certain accomplishments or benchmarks. For example, as an accountability goal, commit to finishing a work project at least one day before its deadline, and to giving your team or supervisor updates on your progress without being asked. This shows not only accountability, but initiative, too.
Once you set goals, the first step in working on your accountability skill is to hold yourself accountable for meeting them. At the end of the day, accountability is largely an intrinsic skill, meaning you’ll be more successful at building it if you can find your own sense of happiness or accomplishment when you become better at being accountable. Holding yourself accountable for accomplishing your first set of goals is your first big test.
Once you’ve started to practice accountability, be consistent in remaining accountable across different projects and with different people at your organization. As you become better at being accountable, others will find it easier to place their trust in you at work. But if your accountability is inconsistent, that can cause serious damage to the trust that others are building in you. It can also cause you to be seen as a teammate who can’t be counted on — the exact opposite of what you want.
Part of being accountable is owning all your work — even your mistakes. There’s a common conception that a person who is accountable will always finish their projects and meet deadlines, but that’s not necessarily true. We’re all human, and we’re all going to fall short sometimes.
The key to being accountable is to take ownership of your mistakes and shortcomings, too. Own up to them, and then make a plan to fix them or keep them from happening again in the future.
In the same vein, part of learning better accountability is learning how to respond when you’re wrong about something. If you make a mistake, part of taking ownership for that mistake and being accountable for its effect on other members of your team is apologizing.
Saying you’re sorry is hard, we know. But a good apology — recognizing your role in what went wrong and committing to make a change that will help avoid a repeat of the same mistake — is a key part of being accountable for your mistakes.
While no one is 100% perfect, being an accountable teammate means delivering on deadlines and promises. One way to set yourself up for success in this arena is by practicing another extremely important skill: Time management.
Managing your time well can be the difference between finishing a project with time to spare, crunching your team to finish at the last minute, or blowing a deadline completely. Which of those would you like to have happen? We can probably guess.
While time management can go a long way toward helping you meet deadlines, it’s also important to recognize that time is a constraint, no matter how well you manage it. Work-life balance is important, so ensure you can stay accountable to all your projects and deadlines at work by not overcommitting your time and promising more than your can reasonably deliver.
And finally, while holding yourself accountable is the first step toward improving this essential skill, nothing encourages accountability like knowing you’re on the hook with someone you respect.
Find a mentor who is willing to help hold you accountable, both to your own goals and to project deadlines and work goals. Sometimes, all it takes is knowing you’re at risk of letting someone else down to take the final steps toward reliability and accountability.
As workers strive to exercise their own accountability muscles, it’s important for organizations to give them the support and resources they need to grow. When organizations start looking at accountability as a skill, and they and their workers commit to growing it together, then accountability can become a shared value for the entire organization.
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