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"We have to hold people accountable for their performance..."

by John Austin in Behavior change, Leadership

“We’ve got no accountability around here, no consequences for anything.”

“Around here, ineffective leaders are allowed to survive as long as their boss likes them.”

I’ve heard lines such as these many times, and across probably 5 different industries. This has once again become a very hot topic in the corporate world.

Why do people feel this way?
What can you do about it?

Read below for more on this.

The fear that drives us to work on accountability is avoidance of mediocrity – no one wants to be mediocre, and no organization can thrive if it is. Ricks identified this clearly in his 2012 HBR article, “…bad leaders drive out good ones, and mediocrity can quickly become institutionalized.” (Ricks, 2012)

Why Do People Feel This Way?

Vague Expectations or Mission. The accountability discussion could be one symptom of vague expectations. That is, if everyone has a different idea of the mission of the organization or unit, then they probably also have different ideas of work standards (i.e., what constitutes a “good job”). And standards for leaders are far tougher to define and observe than standards for the workforce.

Understanding of Accountability. People also have different definitions of what it means to “hold someone accountable”. Some might think it means disciplining or removing people from their role, whereas others think it means using supportive coaching. Further, there are often questions about which situations are vital to have accountability covered and which can be overlooked or let slide.

Not Visible. Mostly “being held accountable” is not visible to others, and when it is visible, it may not be recognized as such. Whether it is disciplinary, mentoring, or supportive coaching, these events are usually private and one-on-one between a coworker and his or her supervisor. There are occasions in which a supervisor can build accountability in a team, and I will discuss some of these below.

What Can You Do About It?
There are some things you do to “advance the game” in the area of accountability.

Realize it’s not just about discipline. In many cases, the term accountability is used to talk about what should be done if someone has a performance problem. That’s partly because humans tend to manage by exception. People tend to think more in terms of punishment than rewards. This is because discipline and threats are often immediately rewarding to the person delivering them.

Many organizations employ a progressive discipline process that involves having a series of ‘coaching’ discussions, before eventual termination or relocation.

This type of coaching is not generally seen as a positive, but rather a ‘hoop’ to jump through so the performance problem is documented. In other cases, “holding someone accountable” amounts to finding a new role for which the person is better equipped. Either way, it’s more a process of removing the under-performing person and making room for someone else who might do a better job.

This is an important piece of the puzzle; having the right people in the right positions. However, there are other important elements to the accountability puzzle that can and should happen daily, and if you get this right then there is less need for the disciplinary tactics.

Discuss it. Many managers and supervisors I encounter were promoted based on their technical expertise rather than their people skills. It follows that many find that they have questions about when discipline or corrective coaching should be used.

However, the easiest way to avoid appearing incompetent is to avoid asking questions, so natural law will not push us in this direction. Having regular discussions about what accountability means in specific situations, and how that translates into daily practices can improve their understanding and consistency in applying standards for their direct reports.

Behavioralize it. This really is simple, but it’s not easy to do. If you can state clearly what you want to see more of from people, then it becomes measurable, and you’re more likely to get what you want. This means being specific about how you define accountability.

“Accountability” is a label that points to many possible actions. Just as in the case of “culture” or “communication”, it is impossible to target accountability and think you can improve hundreds of different actions all at once. The way around this is to start to talk about it in specific examples.

Accountability projects. Talking about accountability in specific examples is a step in the right direction, but talk is cheap. In most workplaces, awareness is not the main driver of activity. Organizations run on actions, not awareness.

I see leaders helping their teams develop accountability skills by focusing on a particular aspect of accountability and improving it. Perhaps it is starting meetings on time, completed meeting actions, doing what you say you will do, or following procedures.

No matter what it is, consider it a special project. We find that if you solve a few of these specific situations, it becomes more and more clear how to solve others. Further, you’re likely to notice areas to improve accountability that you hadn’t considered.

Imagine 100 people in your organization, all getting good at creating accountability, and all getting better at finding new and improved ways to do it without over-reliance on threats or discipline. Imagine the culture you could create and how it could bring out the best in people. That’s potential.

Creating a positive environment. In a generally positive environment, people don’t rely so much on threats, people tend to follow rules more regularly, and people tend to police each other when it’s necessary. People will also tend to give and receive feedback that is more honest, more insightful, and more frequent. As one of my clients aptly put it, “You can’t punish your way to prosperity!”

How you get there matters.

If you feel your team needs help on this and you see clearly what they need to do differently, it’s easy to assume that simply telling them what to do is the best remedy. Telling usually feels quicker than asking, but often in the end, it produces inferior results.

What I am suggesting in the tips above is to educate your team and create an environment where they will be encouraged to figure this out – and that involves asking lots of questions and getting their opinions and thoughts about the issue.

It also involves asking them to experiment with how to adapt various coaching techniques and apply them to what’s happening now on their teams with specific individuals. No two situations are exactly alike, and you can’t just apply behavior change techniques as if out of a cookbook.

This is hard stuff. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. But, if your organization relies on people to deliver its core results, then the prize couldn’t be bigger.

1 Comment
  1. Dominick Perfetti says:

    As always, thank you Dr. John for an insightful look at accountability. In my opinion it has typically been used as a synonym for “poor performance” or “discipline,” and only the best of the best leaders I’ve worked for have truly used accountability as a positive in the sense of working together to achieve goals. Accountability when discussed early on in a project can be put in a very positive light with team member buy-in on goals and expectations; while, on the other hand, waiting to introduce accountability when the project starts to get off track leads to fear of discipline and loss of teamwork.

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