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How Can You Improve Accountability?

By Ken and Lee Estridge

Introducing the 4Cs

We've all experienced having someone in our professional or personal life not do what we expected them to do. Most times a lack of accountability can be attributed to an issue with one or more of the 4Cs: clarity, capacity, competence, and commitment. Before you can address a performance issue, you need to know which C is causing the problem.


Clarity is about perception and understanding, and it flourishes when all parties involved know that it's OK to ask questions and listen to each other. Do you and the person you're communicating with have the same understanding of an assignment or statement? Does the other person share your perception regarding the urgency or importance of the assignment? Is it safe to ask questions or challenge a request? Case in point:

Martin (boss) says to Sarah (employee): "Sarah, could you make sure this contract gets to our client?"
Sarah replies, "Sure."

It's no surprise that this scenario might not go well. Sarah doesn't have some basic information that she needs to get the job done, and she doesn't ask for it. Sarah could have asked: What's the time frame for delivering the contract? How should it be sent-Fed-X, UPS, snail mail, courier, or email? Which client are we talking about? Also, Martin doesn't take the time to frame his request so that the relevant information is more readily apparent to Sarah. Clarity is a two-way responsibility. If you are making a request, you need to hold yourself responsible for the hearing of the listener and make sure there is no lack of clarity with respect to all the components of the request. You must also create sufficient safety in your relationship with the other person that they feel comfortable asking for additional clarification or telling you that they are unable to do what you have requested in the expected time frame. The person receiving the request has a responsibility to make sure they are clear about all the elements of the request and to question you if they are not clear. They need to overcome any fear of conflict and ask the questions that will lead to absolute clarity.


Everyone has competing demands and they have to make decisions about what to do first, what to delay, delegate, or drop. People often tend to do what they think is most important, easiest, or most fun to do. In many cases, the question of capacity isn't broached by anyone, boss or employee.

Both Martin and Sarah avoided the question of Sarah's capacity to get the job done. Martin could have asked Sarah about her current work assignments and whether or not she has the time to send the contract today, and Sarah could have spoken up and told Martin that she did or didn't have the time to send it. Sounds simple, right? Not really, these questions assume that Martin is committed to thinking through his daily interactions with his staff, and that Sarah feels safe pushing back on Martin's request. It also assumes that even if Martin and/or Sarah are uncomfortable with conflict, they are willing to push through their discomfort in the service of getting the job done.


Interestingly, when confronted with a situation where an employee doesn't follow through on an assignment, many bosses will immediately question the employee's competence, when in reality one or more of the other 3Cs is the root cause. In the Martin and Sarah exchange, it would be a stretch to think that Sarah was unable to send the report because she is incompetent. Which is not to say that she might not be aware of a specific organizational procedure or rule around sending reports. Again, both Martin and Sarah would need to feel comfortable enough with each other to confirm that Sarah has in fact been trained in the procedures involved in sending the report. Think of it this way: Martin hired Sarah, so if she can't perform a task, it's Martin's responsibility to inquire about Sarah's training and to provide her with additional training if needed. If it turns out that Sarah has been trained and she still can't get the job done, maybe Martin needs to assign the task to another employee or consider replacing Sarah.


Does the employee care enough to do whatever it takes to accomplish the requested task on time? If not, have they lost their enthusiasm for their job or do they think the request is unreasonable? When people are first hired, their enthusiasm and commitment to their job and their boss tend to be very high. If their morale has sunk, it's usually because of their perception of how they have been treated. In the case of Sarah and Martin, the question of commitment can only be broached if both parties are willing to reflect on their own perceptions and feelings: Does Sarah feel that Martin really cares about her as a valued employee? Does Martin listen to Sarah, and does Sarah feel part of the decision making process? Does Sarah feel safe asking questions? People tend to join companies and leave bosses, so it's in Martin's best interest to pay attention to Sarah's level of commitment to her job and address morale issues early.

Unpacking the 4Cs

When faced with someone who doesn't perform as you expected them to, start by asking which of the 4C's might be the culprit. If clarity is lacking, do whatever you can to increase understanding and make it safe for people to communicate their concerns or objections. If capacity is the issue, make sure you know what is on the individual's plate before making a request, and encourage them to have a dialogue with you about which of their tasks has the highest priority. If competence is the issue, invest in training the person, assign the task to someone else, or replace the person with someone who can get the job done. Lastly, if commitment is the issue, ask yourself why has this person's morale dropped and how can you better support them in their role?

Yours truly,
Ken and Lee