“How do I boost accountability on my team?” This is the most pervasive question being asked by leaders in both startups and in Fortune 500 companies alike.

The term accountability is tossed around so frequently without any supporting actions that it is losing its meaning. I often hear my client executives say, “Let’s keep him accountable for the results” or “If we just keep them accountable we will be OK.” Nearly every mention of the word accountability is about other people. 

Accountability is like rain – everyone knows it’s good for you, but nobody wants to get wet.

Start by being more accountable yourself. Set the example, and you will be on your way to building a more accountable team. Here are four simple ways to boost your accountability:

  1. Be specific. Ambiguity is the Achilles’ heel of accountability. Human communication is a highly imperfect process – be more specific than you think you need to be when setting or agreeing to goals. For example, rather than agreeing to send the proposal to your team by the end of the month, agree to send it by 5:00 p.m. Central Time on Friday, March 28, 2014, in final form with two prior reviews by stakeholders.
  2. Consider timelines in addition to deadlines. People want to please their bosses, so when asked if they can hit a deadline, they typically say yes. The problem is they probably have not considered exactly how long it will take to complete the task. Whether you are requesting or delivering on a task, first consider your ability and bandwidth to get it done before you agree to the deadline.
  3. Improve your say/do ratio. Being accountable is really about being reliable. How reliable are you to act upon what you say? The key is to be careful about what you say – and if you say something, be committed to doing it. Applying Tip No. 2 will help drive up your say/do ratio.
  4. Use 3 Ws. Leave every meeting with a simple, three-column 3W form: What, Who, and When. What needs to be done by whom, and by when? You can even use the 3W form as a mental template for conversations to confirm agreement on what you just talked about: “OK, so you will identify our top three prospects by noon today, and I will call them by noon tomorrow.”

Be the leader; go first!

Add these tools to your leadership toolkit to boost accountability.