How leaders can get comfortable with accountability
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How leaders can get comfortable with accountability

March 27, 2024

Accountability can be a scary word for federal leaders.  

We often associate the word with audits and “gotcha” exercises, but accountability is so much more than that. In fact, government supervisors need to embrace and get comfortable with accountability if they want to be effective at leading people and achieving results.  

Let’s look at the bright side of accountability and how managers can gain confidence in this important competency. 

Public Service Leadership Model
Public Service Leadership Model

What is accountability? 

In our Public Service Leadership Model, we describe accountability as accepting responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. But it’s not only about being reactive to situations and results. The key to accountability is to be proactive.

Leaders need to intentionally create a team culture in which accountability naturally emerges. Leaders should also recognize that accountability doesn’t always mean punishment and consequences when things go wrong—it also means celebrating and rewarding when things go well.  

No wonder this is hard! So how can leaders be more proactive and get more comfortable with accountability?

Work on yourself first 

Leaders need to check their egos and let go of the notion that accountability means determining who is right and who is wrong. Typically, this leads to power plays and blaming one another if things don’t go to plan.  

Effective leaders shift their mindset away from the blame game and toward a sense of “mutual accountability.” They ask, “What can we do better or differently? What parts do you own, and what parts do I own?”  

If leaders don’t accept responsibility for their role, how can they expect an employee to do so? They must lead by example. 

Commitments and expectations 

Next, focus on the communication of commitments and expectations from supervisor to employee and vice versa. The virtuous cycle of accountability means commitments and expectations are clear up front, allowing each party to understand how their task(s) contribute to the expected outcome(s). Then, everyone shares in the successes and learns from the difficulties. 

Timeliness of feedback 

Feedback is not like wine—it does not get better with age. The sooner leaders provide feedback to an employee, the sooner the employee can improve or adjust, hopefully preventing bigger and heavier accountability conversations while avoiding preventable project errors or failures. Practice acting on your feedback within 24-48 hours; don’t delay! 

Promote ownership 

Finally, leaders should focus on how they delegate responsibility and support employees.  

Real accountability does not rely solely on systems, such as clocking in and out to ensure you worked your tour of duty.  

Real accountability means people take ownership of their tasks, their role and their results. With ownership comes action. People are more likely to take initiative, be proactive and go the extra mile when they feel ownership. Think of the difference between owning a car versus renting a car. 

Supervisors can promote more ownership by: 

  • Using the word. Tell the employee, “I want you to own this.” This empowers the employee and gives permission to be proactive and decisive.  
  • Providing guardrails. What parameters do employees need to adhere to? Give them the definition of success for the task and be specific about your expectations (per above).  
  • Giving employees space. You will end up contradicting yourself if you tell an employee to own it but then micromanage or check in too frequently.  
  • Providing support. Ensure employees have autonomy, make it clear that you’re there to support them, troubleshoot or offer guidance as needed. 

You might think of a potluck lunch as an illustration of team accountability. Sure, the leader could choose to cater the meal, decide what everyone is eating and then take all the credit for the event.  

But that’s not how teams work best. In the potluck analogy, we’re all responsible for bringing a dish, and we’re all responsible for the success of the event. Federal leaders should create a culture of co-ownership wherein the whole team feels accountable for the results.  

Explore our Public Service Leadership Model for more resources and check out our Public Service Leadership Institute’s training opportunities.  

Additional Resources: 

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