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It’s a common cry at work: ‘There’s no accountability here!’

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You might assume it’s coming from the C Suite. But more often than not, I hear it coming from staff about execs. If you’ve heard complaints or even whispers of concern about accountability from your team, it’s smart to pay attention.

Accountability is simply the idea that somebody takes responsibility for how things turn out. Of course, in business generally – and in startups in particular, where unknowns define the organization – leaders don’t typically know how our decisions are going to play out. We use data, anecdata, intuition, and magical thinking to determine various courses of action. But in the end, we can’t control everything. How can we be held accountable if we were guessing in the first place?

In fact, lack of leadership accountability is a serious problem, and it significantly undermines a team’s trust and commitment. Perhaps you have a culture that, from the top, avoids acknowledging failure out of fear or shame. Or maybe your company has ‘shiny-object syndrome’, where you abandon old projects in favor of bright new ideas without a discussion around the need for a pivot.

Either way, you can leave staff with the sense that there’s no real strategy in place, that the things they’re working on might get cut off at any time, and that nobody has or needs coherent plans. This adds up to a sense that there’s no accountability in your org, and it is not the ship you want to be steering.

The good news is that creating a culture of accountability doesn’t have to be a painful practice. It’s not fundamentally about accepting and casting blame, punishing people, or firing them. Instead, it involves reflecting on your decisions and their outcomes – and, crucially, communicating about what you’ve learned and are doing differently as a result. That’s what people want when they say they’re missing a culture of accountability.

A cautionary tale

A while back, I was on an executive team that decided to invest in an expensive advertising campaign to increase top-of-funnel prospects. We hired an agency to help create and place ads, and we devoted a lot of staff time to it. But several months after launch, we weren’t seeing the resulting traffic we’d been aiming for.

When the agency wanted more money to increase the campaign’s footprint, we decided that would be throwing good money after bad. We ended the campaign (and our relationship with the agency) and focused instead on tactics that had worked in the past, like affiliate sales and content marketing.

That all sounds reasonable. Ad campaigns fail all the time, and we avoided the sunk cost fallacy by not spending more money on something that wasn’t working. But to staff, it looked like we were flailing, swinging from approaches that had worked, to costly new ideas, and then back to old ideas, all without much rhyme or reason.

It’s not that they disagreed with the decision; they could see the ads weren’t working. And they certainly weren’t looking for anyone to get fired over the multi-million dollar mistake. Instead, it was that they wanted us to reflect on – and talk with them about – how we’d made such an expensive error, and how we might avoid doing so in the future.

Frankly, that would have been uncomfortable for the execs for several reasons. It would have involved talking about the fact that our bet had been wrong. The head of marketing might have felt they should acknowledge that they’d been the person who made the recommendation. We would have had to admit that we might make more mistakes in the future. And we would have had to figure out how we could make smarter decisions from then on, or at least how not to abandon approaches that had been working.

We didn’t do any of that.

In this case, we weren’t so much avoiding those potentially unpleasant conversations as we were oblivious. We’d done a good job of explaining to staff that we were shifting tactics, and we knew they’d understood. But in follow-up conversations with team members, I realized we’d missed the mark. By not exploring why we’d been in this position and what we could learn from it, we left staff feeling unmoored and lost out on a big opportunity to level up by gleaning lessons from the situation. All told, we failed to model accountability.

Creating a culture of accountability

If you’re facing an initiative that faltered, a project that shipped wildly late, a plan that didn’t go as predicted, or even just a stale idea that you’d like to move on from, you can build accountability by taking a structured approach to learning from the issue and openly communicating your conclusions with the wider team.

To learn, you might do a root-cause analysis, using, for example, the ‘Five whys', or holding a facilitated post-mortem. To communicate effectively, make sure that you agree with other leaders on the narrative of what went wrong, why, and what you’ll do differently in the future as a result, and then collectively plan what, when, and how you’ll share those lessons with staff.

It’s worth noting that there are times when firing people is an act of accountability, particularly when they’ve treated other people badly or acted unethically. And then there’s an additional layer of leadership accountability to determine how that behavior was allowed in the first place.

But in most cases, accountability is fundamentally about learning from how things play out, talking about what you’re doing differently as a result, and actually making adjustments. These leadership behaviors may be rare in many organizations, but as engineering leaders, we have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to practice them in building cultures of accountability.