By Katy Tynan

Just a few weeks ago a doctor named David Dao was dragged off a United Airlines flight by airport security. The video of him, clearly both injured and unconscious, being manhandled up the aisle sent shockwaves across first social media, and then across every major news outlet. An innocent man was forcibly removed from a plane, and injured in the process, so that the airline could make space for some crew members who needed to move between airports.

The public response was immediate and scathing. It was a PR nightmare for United Airlines. Within 24 hours, CEO Oscar Munoz came out to publicly take accountability for the incident, and to assure the public, the employees of United, and the doctor who was injured, that United would make things right.

When we think about accountability, this is often the type of example that springs to mind – a leader announcing that they are going to take it upon themselves, personally, to right a wrong or solve a problem. At a macro scale, this is what we mean by accountability. We mean ownership, responsibility, and a personal commitment to see something through to the end.

The challenge with accountability is that it is so often associated with blame. In the example of United Airlines, while the CEO’s actions ultimately resolved the issue, it happened after the fact when things had already gone wrong. As we talk about accountability as a skill for managers, we’re talking about creating an environment of proactive accountability, rather than reactive accountability. Let’s talk about what proactive accountability looks like.

Proactive Accountability is About Taking Ownership of an Objective and Making a Personal Commitment to Seeing it Through to Completion. Imagine for a minute that your team is tasked with planning an event for your clients to thank them for working with your organization. You know everything that needs to get done – you need to find a location, hire a caterer, invite the guests, and engage a band to provide music. You also need to have the VP of Sales deliver a speech to thank your clients for their continued relationship with your firm. There’s a lot to do, and you’re feeling pretty stressed about getting everything arranged in time. You pull together your team, run through the list, and give each person on the team a task to complete.

Having delegated all of the tasks, you’re done, right?

The answer to that question depends on how confident you feel in the proactive accountability of each member of your team. Do they all understand your vision for this event and share it? Do they each care as deeply as you do that it all goes off without a hitch? Right now, in this scenario, you have 100% accountability for the results of the event, and as you engage with the members of your team to deliver on the expectations of the other people in the organization, from the CEO to the sales team, as well as the clients who will be attending, you want to be sure everyone gets the best result.

Do your team members feel the same way?

Let’s take this scenario a step further. Two members of your team, let’s call them Emily and Marcus, are working on this project with you. Emily is responsible for the catering, and Marcus is sending out the invitations. Marcus used to work on the sales team before he joined your group. He knows many of the clients personally, and is excited to see them come to the event. He drafts the invitation emails, double checks everything multiple times, and works closely with the marketing team to make sure the design looks great, and the emails go out in plenty of time.

Emily, on the other hand, thinks this whole project is a drag. She has other projects on her plate, and having been handed the catering task, she wants to get it done as quickly as possible. She does a quick Google search, and calls the first catering company that comes up on the list. She sends them an email requesting food for one hundred people, and gives them the date but no location, since that hasn’t been decided. Once that email is sent, she checks the task off her list and goes back to working on her other projects.

Do you think there will be food at the party?

We’ve all experienced the disappointment of having someone tell us they would take care of something, and then not do it. At the core of accountability is the concept of ownership and personal commitment. When someone feels that personal connection to the outcome, you can feel confident as a manager that they will do two things. First, they will put time and effort into accomplishing the goal at a high level. Second, if they run into an obstacle or challenge, they will be much more likely to try to solve that problem, or alert you to the problem.

How can you foster a feeling of accountability on your team? The answer is surprisingly simple. Most people don’t really like to be told what to do. When someone comes to us and gives us an order, we resist. But if we’re given a choice, the whole dynamic changes.

Going back to our scenario, what if, when we sat down with our team at the outset, we had asked who was interested in working on the project. It’s likely Marcus would have volunteered to take on even more responsibility than just the invitations, given his connection to the team. Emily, on the other hand, might have said she had too many other things on her plate, and asked not to be involved in the planning.

When we tell people what to do (the old ‘command and control’ model of management), they respond because of external factors such as the fact that they are being paid to do the work, or because they are worried that they might get fired. But when we ask people what to do, we tap into an entirely different type of motivation – intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is what we feel when we are doing something because we want to, because the work itself is what feels rewarding. This is what drives true accountability.

As managers, we often fall into the trap of being too busy. We have so much on our plates that it’s hard to slow down and think about how we present things. We fall back to handing out orders instead of engaging with our team to figure out the best way to accomplish our goals. Creating an environment of accountability depends on our ability to be thoughtful communicators as leaders. And communication and accountability both factor in to collaboration and engagement. In the next section, we’ll dive more deeply into collaboration, and see how each of the ACCEL skills ties together to support an effective management practice.