I had a conversation with a trusted colleague the other day that made me ask the question, “What does accountability look like?”

In an ideal world, accountability should look like a normal conversation with two people discussing whether outcomes match expectations. That said, different cultures bring different constraints to each environment, leaving the answer to the above question somewhere on a spectrum between “ideal” and “train wreck”.

Characteristics of Accountability

At its most basic level, accountability is about achieving desired outcomes—guided by organizational values and anchors.

These values and anchors create an understood expectation that everyone in the organization can lean on when trying to make important decisions. But they can also serve as a guide to help steer people or departments back on track after mistakes have been made.

If those values do not exist in an organization, then accountability has a greater chance of resulting in confrontation, confusion, and resentment.

Clarity

This leads us to our first important characteristic of accountability: clarity. Accountability should come from a place of clarity so expectations never take an individual by surprise—so that interactions have a common ground. This common ground provides the trust and honesty that is required for accountability.

Fairness

Common ground, trust, and honesty create a foundation for our second characteristic: fairness. Accountability should be grounded in objective information so that our conversations are characterized by fairness. That doesn’t mean that the conversation avoids difficult subject matter that calls into question a person’s character, behavior, or level of skill execution. We don’t avoid the conversation because of the risk of conflict or the risk of hurting feelings. Instead, we approach those risks with confidence because we know the facts are providing fairness.

Resolution

If we have clarity in expectations and conversations that come from fairness, then we should be ready to achieve the final characteristic of accountability: resolution. Our goal should be to achieve an understanding that leads to actions—actions that change behaviors, plans that improve practical skills, and clarity in the resources that will be available to support the process. This step is critical because once you achieve resolution, you increase our first characteristic, clarity. Now we’ve come full circle, forming a constant feedback loop that always can lead to greater levels of achievement.

Our goal should always be to make progress. I truly believe that everyone—on some level— possesses the desire to improve. But it’s hard to achieve alone. Be accountable to each other. Provide clarity so that common ground is established. Be thoughtful, aware, and rooted in facts so that our interactions are grounded in fairness. Lastly, seek resolution so that we can feed clarity and start the process towards greater achievement.