Accountability is one of those things that can strike fear into your team. Unfortunately, many people have a negative experience with managers who talk about accountability. Most of the time, this is because when their manager has talked about accountability, it has been a thin cover for looking for someone to blame for something going wrong.
It is also a concept that many managers (particularly less experienced ones) struggle with. It’s quite an abstract concept and one where you can’t really just “do it” or “get good” at it because it’s something that you have to learn over time and become more comfortable with.
So try and help with this, today we’re going to explore two examples to demonstrate what accountability looks like and most importantly, how to avoid a lack of accountability from members of your team.
You can use these examples yourself when explaining to your team what accountability means so that they are better equipped to understand what you mean by it.
To help illustrate what accountability looks like, here are some example scenarios that may happen in the agency environment.
Scenario 1: missed actions after a meeting
Acme Agency have just started working with a client called Pioneer Travel and run a 90-minute kick-off workshop which is designed to get the project off to a good start, share information and agree on a scope of work for the next few months.
During the kick-off workshop, lots of great information is shared, some ideas are brainstormed and the enthusiasm for the project is pretty high, with Acme and Pioneer Travel leaving the meeting feeling excited about their new partnership.
All of the actions are captured during the meeting and shared with everyone via email after the meeting and each action has a name attached.
However, Robert doesn’t read the email properly and wasn’t taking notes during the meeting either, so he misses that he has an action to send over confirmation of what work will be started by his team over the next month.
After a month, the client gets in touch with Robert and asks when they can expect to see the influencer marketing strategy that was talked about at the workshop. Robert panics. This strategy hasn’t been started because it’s not planned until month three of the project.
He has to go to the team at Pioneer Travel and explain that the work hasn’t started yet and won’t be for another two months. Suffice to say, the Marketing Manager at Pioneer Travel isn’t happy because they now need to tell their boss that the strategy won’t be ready yet.
This is bad because after just a month of working together, some trust has already been lost, and the effect is felt by senior stakeholders at Pioneer Travel. The other great work that has been delivered so far is forgotten about, and the excitement after the kick-off workshop is gone.
How this could have been avoided
This problem could have been avoided if Robert had taken accountability for the action that was given to him after the workshop. It was a simple case of being aware of his actions and reading the email after the meeting to understand his actions.
The solution isn’t complicated, but the lack of accountability shown by Robert is what caused this. Having the feeling of accountability means that he would proactively look for his actions and ensure that either he has them or if he hasn’t, he knows that this is the case.
If he’d taken accountability for his own actions, Robert would have known that he was accountable for sending the list of work that Acme Agency would be working on during the first month of the project. If he’d done this, then Pioneer Travel would have been aware that the influencer marketing strategy wasn’t being worked on. Therefore, the expectation that they had and the email they sent wouldn’t have happened.
Receiving the plan of work would have also given Pioneer Travel the chance to flag that the influencer marketing strategy was important and given the opportunity to prioritise it over another piece of work.
Note that one outcome here is that the strategy could have still been delivered in month three. But the fact that expectations were set and the plan was communicated, avoids the problem. By taking accountability for his actions, Robert would have avoided the client’s unhappiness and not sent the project off track so early.
Scenario 2: owning problems and mistakes
Acme Agency is working with Top Drawer Retail to help them write a report showing which ecommerce brands are doing the best job with customer service and online reviews. It’s the job of Acme to carry out the required research into customer satisfaction and put together all of the scores so that each website can be scored and rated.
The report is finished, designed and published on the Top Drawer Retail website and their PR agency starts to promote the report to industry trade press and websites. Lots of the press and websites love the trends that the report shows and start to publish stories about it.
Then a journalist notices a big error in the research. A key data point has been recorded incorrectly, and it’s led to the customer service scores for lots of the ecommerce brands being completely wrong. They tell the PR agency, who tell Top Drawer Retail, who then email Rachael at Acme to see what’s happened.
Rachael isn’t sure where the mistake has come from, so she gathers the project team together and asks about the mistake, showing the email that has been forwarded to her.
On the Zoom call with the team, Rachael is met with silence. None of the four people who sat on the call with her speaks up to say where the mistake may have come from. They are all clearly disappointed about it, but she isn’t able to get a direct answer from anyone when it comes to the mistake itself. Struggling to hide her frustration, Rachael ends the call and immediately goes over the data again herself, looking for the mistake and then spending a few hours doing research to find the correct data. She then briefs the team designer to update the report with the new data before sending it to the client to update at their end.
Overall, she fixes the problem herself after about 7-8 hours of work, on her own. She then calls Top Drawer Retail to apologise and issues the PR company with some copy that they can use to tell journalists who have already written about the report so that they can correct any errors.
Rachael leaves work frustrated with her team, as well as now being a day behind on the work that she’d been scheduled to work on before this happened.
Her team sees that she has fixed the problem and are nervous about what will happen next because they know that their boss has bailed them out of a difficult situation.
How this could have been avoided
Much of the time and frustration that Rachael felt could have been avoided if the team had taken accountability for the mistake when she asked them about it. They needed to look at the problem that had been identified, see how it happened and then promise Rachael that they would fix it as soon as possible.
Jim, who led the research team, could have said the following:
‘Ah, that was the research that Dan and I carried out, we must have both double counted the review scores when only one of us should have counted them. So the numbers are inflated. I know where the data problem is, we just need to remove the double counting. I’m really sorry it happened, we’ll get it fixed straight away, leave it with us’.
This ownership of the problem by Jim would not only reassure Rachael, but it would have saved a lot of time because he knew exactly where the problem came from. This meant that he could have quickly fixed the problem and Rachael wouldn’t have had to do all of the research all over again to make sure that it was correct.
Instead of spending 7-8 hours on the research, Rachael could have called the client to explain what had happened and whilst she was doing this, Jim and Dan could have fixed the data and worked with the designer to update the report.
Essentially, this problem could have been handled a lot quicker and with less frustration if Jim and Dan had taken accountability for their mistake straight away and helped to fix it.
Hopefully these examples help to make accountability a bit more tangible for you so that you can work with your team to try and avoid these problems. By sharing examples of what accountability means (and what a lack of it looks like), it can be far easier for you to explain it and therefore, far easier for them to understand it too.