Transactional accountability: How to give a #$%! at work.

Can you name 3-4 things you do at your job which you’d be held accountable for if you failed at them? If the answer is no and you just giggled a little bit, well, damn, that’s no good.

Accountability is a scarcity

Accountability is hard to come by at work, but most people want it. I’m no good at economics, but I think that makes accountability a scarcity in the workplace.

The accountability missing most is what I’ll call transactional accountability. Or, giving a shit because you know that’s what your employer would want. It’s the process of identifying and remediating a problem through learned, professional empathy.

The accountability missing most is what I’ll call transactional accountability. Or, giving a shit because you know that’s what your employer would want. It’s the process of identifying and remediating a problem through learned, professional empathy.

There’s various reasons for its scarcity. An overbearing management, too much software between employees and the customers, or too little insight and belief into a business’ objectives.

Think of all the bad experiences you’ve had at government agencies, restaurants or online and ask yourself whether the person helping you just didn’t give a shit or were they in a position where they’re excused from accountability? With the exception of the occasional sociopath working at an airline, my hunch is the latter.

A big reason for the discontent is that employees don’t feel accountable for the problem the customer is experiencing. Think of the airline service rep whining to you that the airplane is late. Or the unapologetic waiter who wasn’t the one who screwed up your order.

A big reason for the discontent is that employees don’t feel accountable for the problem the customer is experiencing.

But with a bit of empathy, and a few ways of saying sorry, it’s often a simple fix. What would make that wait for a plane a bit better? Here, how about some free wifi, dude. Oh, yeah, you’re absolutely right, that chicken does smell like fish. How about this, we’ll buy a bottle of wine for you, because you probably don’t want to eat here any more.

Granted, these are trivial examples. But the process of making an employee recognize their accountability and educating them on how to patch things up is a crucial component in succeeding as a business.

How to feel accountable

It’s not always in your control to be accountable. It’s certainly not in your control to be ‘held accountable’. Here are a few considerations and exercises to help.

Who are you accountable to?

Write a job description. Not a resume. A wordy description of what you do day in and day out. Include a list of all of the folks you’re accountable to and why. Customers, developers, clients, investors, etc. Review this with a peer, manager, or boss. The meer act of writing and discussing this is a feat of accountablity in itself. Accountability may, in this case, breed more accountability.

Identify common pain points

Find the top 5 most popular problems your team encounters. Now, agree on a practical, memorable way of dealing with them. An example with our team is doing release builds on short notice for clients. We almost always screw them up. So, we’ve made the decision to do release builds at the same time every day. Our team then knows when to quit coding and begin testing. Our customers feel we’re more accountable because the quality of the code we release is better, and it comes at a predictable time every day.

Remove the layers

Try picking up the phone and calling someone instead of emailing. Preach human contact. CRMs are warehouses for problems, not magic-angry-customer-fixer-elixers. More often than not, simply speaking to someone directly  will elicit empathy on both sides of the problem. Thecustomer will be left with a real human memory, rather than a digital artifact.

CRMs are warehouses for problems, not magic-angry-customer-fixer-elixers. More often than not, simply speaking to someone directly  will elicit empathy on both sides of the problem.

In my last post about programmers being good project managers, I talked about putting the folks doing the work in direct contact with the folks paying for the work. This creates accountability. Put the cushion of account executives and management between the two and poof! There goes both parties’ sense of accountability to one another.

What would ‘she’ do

Learn to think empathetically by imagining what your (presumeably accountable) team lead would do. Through repetition and shadowing, empathy will become a natural reaction and you’ll adopt a style all your own. Maybe you won’t be the snuggly teddy bear your colleague is, but it’ll be genuine, which is more important.

Swim downstream

If an employee trusts that the management team is accountable, they’re more likely to act accountable as well (see above). As a manager, share frustration, emotion, and organizational decision making. No one feels accountable to a heartless robot, it’s the otherway around. Be a friggin’ human being.

Stop with the ‘we’

When was the last time you walked out of a meeting with 20 other people and knew that nothing was just decided and nothing would get done? I’ll bet everyone just “agreed that we really need to decide and take care of this or that”. Take a stand, and just say “I’ll do it!”. Better yet, don’t leave the room until a single individual is held accountable for each of the takeaways in the meeting. By being mutual and saying “we” all the time, nothing gets done. In the end, the individual gets work done.

Beware the chutes and ladders

Which part of the corporate structure screams accountability? There’s associates, juniors, seniors, directors of, vp’s of, senior vp’s of, and it keeps going up and up. What part of working this ladder is meant to make someone feel really accountable? Answer: none. Let responsibility and rank be inherent in the team of characters you hire. This is tough in a larger organization. But aspiring to become a senior art director, or vp creative director doesn’t make you more accountable, it leads you farther from it. Titles are second. Work ethic is first.

Fail utterly and completely. Then fix it.

Screwing up is the best way to become accountable. And more often than not, screw ups get more recognition than the great peformances. Think of it. The last time you emailed the ‘bad’ draft of the client email, or forgot to fix that critical issue. How quickly were you reprimanded and/or spoken to about your behavior? Now, think of the last time you really knocked it out of the park. Crickets chirping?

Trusting your team with big decisions and living with the outcome is a leap of faith, admittedly. But, giving your two cents and then letting the team make the final decision has two primary transactions of accountability. The first is you trusting them. The second is their succeeding or failing on their own. If they failed, then it’s their problem to fix. If they succeeded, it’s their win to celebrate. It’s accountability all around.