Bennett: Accountability is Not a Four-Letter Word

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Be honest, when you hear the word accountability, what is the first word that comes to mind? I’m guessing it could be any number of expletives, and it most certainly evokes some level of angst if not outright frustration or fear. Whether on the “holding” side of accountability or “being” side of accountability, no word is more over-used and misapplied in business or life than accountability. Let’s face it, accountability has become a dirty word. Managers, leaders, and employees alike fear it, and almost all associate accountability with discipline and punishment, but it really shouldn’t be.

Simply put, accountability is showing up and doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it. Sounds so simple right? Yet, nearly every leader, every employer, and every business claim this as their #1 issue when it comes to employee and expectations management. If accountability is such an obvious challenge and so universally discussed, why then does solving the issue of accountability remain one of the most elusive skills for leaders? 

Let’s break down what accountability is. Accountability starts with understanding and acknowledging responsibility. We (an employee, a team, a business) are responsible for something. The key part of the word is “thing.” Whether as an employee, a team, or a business the nature of the role is to accept responsibility for something: a result, a deadline, a behavior, a product… you accept the responsibility to deliver. We make agreements on the result of a “valuable final product” and the expectation by all is that the agreed-upon result will be achieved. Accountability is then the expectation and the agreement to a person (or team) that this thing you said you would do (or deliver) will be done as you said you would do it and when you said you would do it, period! 

It sounds so simple, right? The difficulty with accountability though is that it is easy to talk about and hard to live it and manage it. What we say we will do versus. what we do are often two vastly different things. Let’s look at a personal life example. If asked “do you want to eat healthier and get in better shape?” most people would say absolutely. In action though, most of those same individuals will opt for the fast-food option, a bag of chips, and an afternoon on the couch binge-watching Netflix rather than preparing a healthy meal and going for a walk or a bike ride. Accountability, or the lack thereof, is about what you do rather than what you say. 

Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni writes: “Once we achieve clarity and buy-in, it is then that we have to hold each other accountable for what we sign up to do, for high standards of performance and behavior. And as simple as that sounds, most executives hate to do it, especially when it comes to a peer’s behavior.”. Holding people and organizations accountable to agreed-upon behaviors and results is tough. Honestly, I don’t know anyone that relishes the role of “accountability cop.”

So, how do we start to solve the Accountability conundrum? I’d like to offer a couple of proven and effective techniques for not only improving accountability and delivering results, but for also turning the accountability conversation from a perceived punitive and negative experience to one that creates and reinforces collaboration, cooperation, and positive engagement. Let’s start with a few statistics as shared by Anne Loehr with the Huffington Post:

  • 93% of employees don’t understand what their organization is trying to accomplish (as it) aligns with their work.
  • 85% of leaders aren’t defining what their people should be working on—and an equal number of employees crave clarity.

Successful execution and accountability start with knowing what is expected and what you are responsible for. As a leader, just setting goals and assuming everyone knows their part is not good enough. First, you must preface the value of the individuals' or teams’ efforts in reaching the goals: “I know this is asking more of you, but I also know you are the absolute right person (team) to carry this initiative forward to success” this creates instant goodwill and buy-in. Then, you must not only define the goals and expectations, but you are responsible for clearly defining each individual’s role in producing the outcome, discussing or demonstrating the behaviors and actions that will lead to the result, measuring all progress, and most importantly, give feedback early and often. You can’t just assume “they are professionals, they should know what to do.” As a leader and manager, you must actively participate in the process of encouraging accountability and results.

Occasionally though, even with all the best practices, clarity, and feedback, there still may be difficulties. As a leader, you will be challenged with failure, bad behavior, or poor performance. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it is just poor performance despite the best of efforts and intentions. This is where the accountability conversation must occur and how you approach it has everything to do with if and how quickly you will be able to get the outcomes back on track. 

How to hold people accountable without being negative.

Appreciative Inquiry is a technique used to guide employees toward more accountable behaviors. This method is replacing the outdated and negative model of punishing employees for performance shortfalls. Appreciative Inquiry walks managers (and leaders) through three steps to prevent triggering defensive reactions in employees and instead creates an atmosphere of trust and openness. 

The best outcomes for all involved occur when each of the below steps is done authentically. Use the sample phrases provided to get you started but try to incorporate your own original thoughts wherever possible. 

Show Appreciation

“First, I want to thank you (and your team) for the significant effort given to this project. I know it was a tight timeline and you had to put in extra hours to make this happen. I want you to know I noticed and greatly appreciate it." 

Recognizing that your employee(s) put a certain level of effort forward (even in situations where it was not as much as you hoped) allows them to feel validated from the start of the conversation. When they feel valued and seen for their work, defensiveness goes down and the conversation expands to be more productive.

Be Real

“Even with the solid effort put in, it is a little disappointing that we didn’t hit our objectives. I think there were a few things that could have been handled differently that I'd like us both to weigh in on ..." 

This statement is an important level-set. You are making it clear that you aren’t satisfied with what happened without being pointedly critical to the individual or the team. Pay attention to your pronouns here—“we” not “you” is an important language to remind employees that you support them and see them as part of the team, even in the tougher moments. This is a critical component of creating a felt sense of safety in your overall work environment. 

Demonstrate Curiosity

 “If we were going to do this again, what would we change about our approach?” 

Express curiosity through open-ended questions. This lays the groundwork for an honest conversation where all parties involved can better understand what led to the performance shortfall. Here, your employee can take ownership of what happened and partner with you in a solutions-oriented conversation. This not only helps prevent the same mistake from happening again in the future, but it also significantly strengthens the mutual trust and respect between you and your employee.

Success in life and business is fundamentally linked to setting and achieving goals and expected outcomes. The more complex your business or team is, the more predictable and accountable results from each member of your team will be required for your organization to grow and prosper. As a manager and leader, your success will be predicated on your ability to motivate your team and maintain a high level of culture and accountability. Don’t fear or shy away from accountability. Embrace the opportunity to lead productive, empowered, and accountable teams by being a proactive, curious, and appreciative leader.

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