The 4 Key Steps to Healthy AccountabilityMay 04, 2023
Read Time: 5 Minutes
What’s the first thing you feel when I say accountability?
The word comes up a lot in game development. I’ve also seen the concept of #noaccountability growing in popularity on social media.
“We don’t have any accountability here.”
“Our people just aren’t accountable.”
“There was no accountability on this project.”
We hear these statements all the time. I’ll translate them for you:
“People aren’t doing what I expect them to do, and I’m frustrated.”
Unsurprisingly, when the leader finally decides to take action, it takes the form of punishment. They’re frustrated and impatient and need to take drastic action to “resolve” the situation.
“I’m holding you accountable for this!”
It’s also unsurprising that when teams hear “accountability,” they prepare for the hammer to fall. If accountability is just draconian punishment from a pissed-off manager, no wonder many people want to eliminate it!
This is a misunderstanding of what accountability is and serves no one.
Accountability is more than punishment or reacting when things are already off the rails. It’s not a bad thing to be feared. Our agreements allow us to grow and learn more about each other. Any healthy relationship at work or home has accountability built into it.
OK, great, you’re telling me what accountability isn’t, but what IS it?
Accountability is a social contract where we set & agree on expectations, then take action depending on how things go.
Let me pose a scenario and ask a question:
Your partner called you on your way out of the office or grocery store and asked you to pick up some milk. You said yes, then forgot to get the milk.
Would it be fair for them to “hold” you accountable?
The example is simple, but it’s a great example of how healthy accountability works. We break it into four key pieces that you can use every day.
Set Clear Expectations:
The thing that nobody seems to do before launching into a tirade about accountability is set clear expectations. As managers, we need to set expectations with our reports so they can succeed. As reports, we need to set expectations with managers to get needed support. We need to set expectations with everyone around us regularly.
Maybe we don’t know what we need from the other person. Maybe we're afraid to ask. Perhaps we're worried the other person will say no. This is the part most often skipped.
I once talked to a studio leader who said his teams had developed “learned helplessness.” I asked if he’d ever set expectations about how they should tackle problems or behave. He did not have an answer.
This is the part where you “make the ask” and paint a picture of what you think good looks like. Which goals are more important, what should be accomplished, or how you want your teams to behave within your culture?
The overwhelming majority of leaders & teams need more clarity on expectations.
If these conversations aren’t happening on your team, YOU need to set them up. Without this step, everyone is playing a game without a clear win condition. It’s a recipe for disappointment.
“But wait. I’m the leader here. Why should I need to negotiate expectations? You’re telling me I have to set them AND have a debate?”
Negotiation is the step where you sit down with someone and discuss the expectations you’ve set. The conversation is 2-sided and focused on things like:
The relative priority of your asks.
Clarification about what a good outcome looks like (this is the next-most-often missed piece of the puzzle).
The constraints of the person being asked
Support that they will need to succeed.
You can’t get a commitment (more on that next) if the other party isn’t willing to “sign on.” You must “negotiate” through these points until the accountable party is ready to commit. It should feel a little like ping pong.
This is where you’ll hear things like:
“I’m going to be on vacation for 3 of those months. I don’t know if I’ll have the time”.
“I need more of your time to answer questions, or I’m not sure we’ll finish this month.”
“I don’t know much about unreal engine, so I’ll need some help ramping up.”
“If those two are the most important, I think I can tackle them both if I drop this third one.”
Right about here is where you realize how glad you are that you had this conversation.
The clarity will provide better outcomes and higher confidence in every step moving forward. This will feel awkward, especially if you’re used to doling out tasks. It will also result in significantly higher trust, reliability, and consistency.
After you’ve written down your expectations & goals, stack-rank them so that when the negotiation starts, you know where you’re willing to make tradeoffs and why. This works when managing up or down.
Ask yourself if you have expectations of others that they’ve never agreed to. But you set clear expectations, so people should just do it now, right?
This isn’t the way healthy accountability works. The accountable party needs to make a commitment and understand what they’re committing to.
I want to be clear: you can have accountability without a commitment (there’s probably a law somewhere you haven’t committed to, but if you break it, you will go to jail), but it’s not the right approach for game development. The use of coercion and punishment as a way to get results is not effective in a creative/autonomous organization.
Doing this is easier than it sounds, especially since you’ve done your diligence by setting expectations and negotiating the needs!
A commitment: “I will do X.” In the story above, this is the part where you said you’d get the milk. Then you forgot. How could you?
We don’t need oaths, blood signatures, or multi-page contracts. We just need one person to verbally sign up for something with an understanding of what they’re signing up for. You're in good shape if you handled the negotiation well and both parties are clear.
This is where most leaders singularly focus—the part where outcomes have already happened (and usually, we’re unhappy).
When we can’t take it anymore, we start punishing people. Sometimes we let them go; sometimes, we get frustrated and get on their case. We inflict consequences to stop these poor results.
I’ve seen teams (and leaders) utterly confused in many of these situations. They know they’re being disciplined but aren’t clear why. They knew things weren’t going well by the smell in the air, but nobody seemed to be able to explain it. These environments create fear, frustration, and a lack of agency in developers.
This is a failed approach. We ended up in this situation because we failed to set expectations, negotiate effectively, or solicit commitments from our teams.
We are so used to using punishment to “stop the bad stuff” that we fail to realize there are several other ways to hold accountability. Here’s a couple:
Have a conversation and talk about why we failed, what we learned, and what we will do differently-then re-commit
Reward and praise people who meet their commitments.
Creating rewards for those who follow through on commitments is a far more powerful motivator than punishment will ever be.
Only thinking about accountability AFTER things have gone off the rails has to stop.
A commitment to “do better” in specific terms is a very satisfying outcome of accountability. This is why an apology that comes with, “I’m going to handle this differently next time,” feels WAY better than someone just saying, “Sorry!” repeatedly.
If you want to build real, healthy accountability into your organization, remember the following formula, and start working it into your teams today.
Knowing what you can expect of the people around you and what they can expect of you is a game with clear rules and win conditions. It will get you better results, fewer surprises, and happier teams.
Whenever you’re ready, there are 2 ways we can help you…
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"Exhibiting accountability over time is a gateway to trust. When we see someone acting with accountability, we gain the evidence we need to trust them."
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
"Failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness."