Accountability is one of those buzzwords that was quickly recognized in management and leadership circles as an important concept. The unfortunate outcome of a buzzword is it minimizes the importance of the buzz-worthy topic. The concept then quickly becomes misunderstood. Despite the ubiquity of the term “accountability,” it remains a vital input to results and high performance.
The question is, however, how do you turn accountability into a positive experience? Too often most of us experience accountability like a slap on the hand–a result of something I forgot to do or didn’t do.
Three Barriers to Holding People Accountable
“It takes courage and it can be uncomfortable,” says Lee Ellis about holding people accountable. Ellis, once a Vietnam POW and now a leadership expert and author of Engage with Honor, shines a light on the underbelly of accountability: the hard truths preventing people from doing what it takes to support people’s success.
Too Much Pride. “I’m a good worker.” At the root of pride is our “fear that the person holding us accountable won’t understand what we do and the conditions in which we work,” explains Ellis. Pride interferes with our rational judgment and how we evaluate the intentions of others.
When we hold others accountable it’s not to be punitive, but to help raise the bar of everyone’s performance.
Allure of Laziness. It’s work to hold people to their commitments. You need to recall the person’s commitment and then loop back with them to see how they’re progressing.
When you follow-up with people on their commitments you’re signaling that their work is important.
Avoid Negativity. When accountability is a leader’s way to manage employees, it undermines trust and respect. No one likes to feel like they’re being managed, especially if they’re already high performers or, at minimum, doing good work.
Avoid the negativity and give people the space to show they can do good work. Believe in the person’s potential.
The Four C’s of Accountability
Lee Ellis believes that a focus on results is key for accountability. “If something isn’t right with the team, something is wrong with the leader,” he astutely observes. To help the leader achieve desired results through holding people accountable, Ellis identified these four responsibilities.
Clarity. Through my own research in learning what makes teams and organizations great, clarity is vital to performance. Clarity has four elements: goals, priorities, expectations, and a balanced feedback loop. When there is clarity in these four areas, teams perform at high rates. The four components of clarity also pave the way towards holding people, and yourself, accountable.
Ellis adds that clarity in the company’s mission, vision, and values is key. Aim the four elements above to align with the company culture and you’ve got a winning combination.
Connect. “Most employee engagement issues are due to a lack of heart level connection [in the workplace],” explains Ellis. In our workplaces, we all want to be valued, counted on, be important, heard, seen, and known explains the former POW. This is what energizes people, he explains.
Connection is a basic human need that is too often overlooked by leaders. It can unite a team in a way that makes it comfortable to hold one another accountable.
Collaboration. If you want to make it more comfortable for people to hold each other accountable, put in to place structures that encourage collaboration. It fosters dialogue and helps people better relate to one another.
Close out. In today’s hyper-competitive workplace where projects drive activity, it’s easy to not celebrate success. Too many organizations I work with don’t make time to celebrate because they are busy moving on or starting another project.
Let your employees know that it’s good to close out hard work by celebrating.
Lee Ellis believes accountability starts with the leader. Model it. It paves the way for you to expect it in others. If you don’t hold people accountable, you leave to chance people not knowing how valued they are. What’s worse, Ellis says, is “[it leaves] people unaware of how their work matters.”
Holding people accountable doesn’t need to be punitive. It raises the bar and signals to people that high performance is expected, recognized, and rewarded.
A version of this was originally posted on Inc.com