Good accountability can empower content teams

I spend a lot of time talking about content related things but not the content itself. This links back to my tweet a little while ago about content being about organisational culture, politics and (conflicting) priorities.


In a series of short articles I'll cover some of the fundamental parts of the content work I do, and the themes in the conversations I have. So they’ll be articles on dissemination, context, consistency, listening and to kick the series off, accountability.

There appears to be an inherent belief that accountability is bad. When the word is mentioned you can see people shudder, suddenly they scramble to start justifying things that don’t need to be justified. This isn’t always the case, but I see it often and increasingly so.


Why is being accountable for something feared? A lot of the reasons are linked to the culture of an organisation and the behaviours and language that are present about and around accountability.


What is accountability?


The Cambridge Dictionary defines accountability as:

The fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it, or the degree to which this happens.

Responsibility, or ownership in some cases, are powerful words. The definition shared alludes to giving reasons and that ties in with the justification behaviour that accountability can be a catalyst for.


What bad accountability looks like


Here are some common questions and comments linked to negative beliefs about accountability:

  • what if it goes wrong?

  • what if I don't do a good job?

  • what if I dont deliver?

  • people won't trust me

  • I’ll lose my job

Those thoughts and feelings around accountability aren’t healthy, helpful or necessary. There are also dismissive and avoidance statements like 'I didn't know it was my responsibility' or 'that's not my job.' Comments like that come from a place of worry and fear.


When someone is told they are accountable for something and that’s what they think and say, they’re predicting outcomes and catastrophising. But if accountability instills fear then it is indicative of a work environment where:

  • errors are frowned upon

  • mistakes are punished

  • blame culture is rife

In the context and scope of the content work I do, these are really a lens for:

  • lack of clarity roles and responsibilities

  • unclear or no processes

  • not supported by systems or data

These circumstances then manifest themselves in a practical sense with bottlenecks in processes, information locked away, siloed working being present, decision making not being based on evidence.


People should want to be accountable. They should be proud of the work they do and want to 'own it. This is when accountability becomes desired and encouraged rather than feared or avoided.


What good accountability looks like


Positive accountability is an indicator of an environment where:

  • good and positive leadership is present

  • pressure is healthy and not counter-productive

  • safe spaces exist for people to be honest, open and candid

  • people have autonomy, are respected and trusted and therefore welcome accountability

  • focus is on learning and improving, not the mistake itself

  • there are clear roles, responsibilities and processes

  • communication channels are clear and open

  • feedback is constructive

  • soft skills are invested in

Nobody likes to make mistakes but they happen and if you’re fearful of doing something wrong then the organisation needs radical changes. Good accountability breeds confidence, progress, openness and honesty. There may still be awkward situations and difficult conversations but with guardrails that ensure people feel safe.


The focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the person and the mistake they made, though in some cases that is needed, but rather on why the mistake happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. That's how blame becomes progress.


I'm currently working on an agile project and retrospectives have been a productive way of having difficult conversations around accountability (or a lack of). The chats haven't been aboout dwelling on what's happened to get to that point, but what needs to happen to see the change that's required.


These are two key questions that are both important but frame conversations in very different ways:

  • why did that happen?

  • what can we do from here on?

The first question, why, keeps all discussion in the past and that’s what can spur people on to justify things. The second question, what, looks forward and is about improvements, progress and solutions. Determining the why is important but shouldn’t be the only question that’s asked or the main focus.


This is where data and evidence play a key role as having the right tools and systems in place should bring mistakes to the surface sooner rather than later. Then, when the mistake is identified it’s important to spend time on discussing and documenting what happened and then make any necessary changes. Perhaps there’s a gap in skills, a stage in the workflow may need to be added, or there’s simply no process to begin with.


Turning accountability from something feared to something embraced or welcomed can’t happen quickly. That’s because it means an organisation's culture needs to change and that level of transformation takes time.


But the outcome is worth it. In the Forbes article, The '8 Great' Accountability Skills For Business Success, it says:

When people are accountable for their own decisions, work, and results, the effectiveness of an organization can greatly increase.

Invest in the individuals for a greater whole but a blueprint for good accountability within any organisation depends on leadership. This is where the company’s values, culture, principles and priorities must align. Values can provide those aforementioned guardrails for safe spaces, trust and openness.


Moving towards accountability that's empowering


For accountability to be welcomed and embraced you first need to understand all of your processes and the people involved. You need to be clear on who is involved in content, why and how. Plus how all of that fits together. A content operations audit is a good first step here.


Good accountability can be present and empower content teams when:

  • they understand what's needed, why and when

  • processes are defined, communicated and understood

  • content performance is measurable

  • tools add efficiency and not stress and confusion

  • collaborative working is the norm with no silos

  • communication channels are appropriate and clear

  • everyone involved has a purposeful role to play

  • decisions are made in confidence guided by principles, values, style guides

Whilst that's a lot to consider, the positive outcomes for the organisation, it's people, the content and the audience are all worth the hard work.


The positive side of accountability


Also, what if the thing you’re accountable for goes really well? Imagine that. You were responsible for something and it was a huge success. Accountability isn’t and shouldn’t be all about things going wrong. It’s having appropriate channels of communication in place. It’s an environment that encourages, nurtures and facilitates sometimes hard but always healthy discussions.


Good accountability should be a part of a system with clear workflows, roles, responsibilities, and governance.


Good accountability should be empowering.

Article attributions and references:


Robert Mills on Twitter

Forbes article: The '8 Great' Accountability Skills For Business Success

Cambridge Dictionary

Fourth Wall Content article: Content principles

Article image by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Imaged edited using Duotone

Llibertat article: Why you need a content operations audit and how to do one