The Fulcrum of Accountability is Clear Expectations

Have you ever seen the following scenario play out at work?

  • The leader sets an unclear expectation about work that must be performed.
  • A team member produces work that does not meet the desired expectation.
  • The leader complains about it to others, but doesn’t address it directly with the team member.
  • The leader assigns the team member additional training to “fix” the problem.
  • When this doesn’t solve the issue, the leader asks HR to intervene, including a possible performance improvement plan.
  • The frustrated team member protests to the leader that they did perform what was communicated to them.
  • Because the team member disagreed or displayed emotion during the conversation, the leader assigns them remedial communication training and asks HR to update the performance plan to include the need for communication improvement.
  • Trust between the leader and team member falls to an all-time low, as does engagement and productivity.
  • The team member feels unappreciated, unvalued and unwanted and eventually leaves the team.

How would you diagnose the core issue? What is the root cause? It’s all the way at step one: unclear expectations set by the leader. Every challenge beyond that is avoidable.

The majority of accountability conflicts within teams fail at the point of clarity. Clear expectations are the fulcrum of accountability.

Leaders bemoan lack of follow-through by team members, oblivious that they’re the culprit. In the minds of the team, they’re on the right track. Any intervention that doesn’t add clarity risks a downward spiral. Without an intervention, nothing changes.

Accountability is a great gift and leader’s first job is to set clear expectations for performance and execution.

Thankfully, there is a proven Accountability Formula to set clear expectations:

Who (all parties with assignments) +

What (all actions) +

When (time due for each action) +

Follow-up (status & delivery) +

Agreement (from all parties) =

Accountable Action

Any missing variable weakens the ability of a team member to accomplish the desired outcome.

So how do you solve the situation above and prevent the doom loop? Leaders must take the responsibility to setting (and clarifying when necessary) their own expectations. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but it is that simple.

What about other scenarios? Here’s a cheat sheet for how to handle common accountability challenges you may encounter.

Scenario: A complication compromises the deliverable or timeframe.

Response: Use agreed upon “follow-up” procedure for unforeseen situations (or create/update one, if necessary).

Scenario: Team member takes the wrong level of responsibility.

Response: Clarify level of desired responsibility.

Scenario: You fail to get an agreement.

Response: Clarify expectations. Ask if the team member does not understand or needs addition information or support. Make the task an assignment.

Scenario: You fail to get agreement from a peer or external party.

Response: Collaborate and find common ground. What is the problem and how should it be solved? Work through formula together.

Scenario: Your team member fails to follow through.

Response: Clarify expectations. Ask what prevented action. Re-assign and ask for agreement. Share consequences of not completing action. Move to performance improvement as a last resort.

At the end of the day, everyone deserves to know what they need to do to receive a passing grade for their work. Accountability is a great gift – and the one who benefits most in all of it is the leader.

This article is included in the Leadership-in-a-Box® program:


Bring Leadership-in-a-Box® to your organization!