Accountability may be the single most common response when leaders are asked to define the one aspect of their organizational culture that they would like to change. Leaders often comment that the reason the business isn’t growing is a lack of accountability. And we have managers who frequently comment that their leaders aren’t holding people accountable. With various parties claiming that others are falling short when it comes to accountability, we have to wonder: Who is really lacking when it comes to accountability? And why are there conflicting perceptions surrounding this issue?

“Holding Someone Accountable” vs. “Creating Accountability in Others”

The challenge is that the word “accountability” may make you think of management enforcement. Mike Thaman, former CEO of Owens Corning, makes a critical distinction between “holding someone accountable,” which has mainly negative and punitive connotations, such as punishing someone for not doing what they said they would do, and “creating accountability in others,” which is about being vested in the performance success of others. The distinction is critical, and the examples of being vested in each other’s success extend far beyond just business.

The myth of accountability is that it is all about leaders following up, checking in, and demanding that people deliver what they said they would deliver when they said they would deliver it. And if they repeatedly fall short of delivering, they should be gone. The problem is, if you do this as a leader, you may find that performance gets worse as people pull back from taking the risks and leveraging the learnings that are necessary for improved performance. As people feel more at risk, they are reluctant to ask for resources. They worry that if they ask questions or ask for help, they will be viewed as weak or unprepared. No one wants to feel this way. It does nothing for morale or engagement and instead fuels fear and discontent.

A shift in mindset is required for leaders to move from holding people accountable (with threats of punitive actions) to instead becoming intensely clear on what they need to do to create accountability in those they lead.

4 Ways for Leaders to Help Create Accountability

Leaders can help create accountability by giving people a greater sense of ownership and sense of self-accountability. Here are the four beliefs and behaviors of leaders who are good at creating accountability in others.

1) You believe and trust that people are accountable.

How you see your people matters, and it starts with seeing people as individuals who want to be accountable. This may sound too simple, but it is a critical starting point. This perspective allows any leader to think like a conductor who says, “I know that they are talented and want to be successful. It is my job to bring that talent to the forefront, blend it with others, and to be curious about what could be getting in the way of delivering the desired outcomes when performance falls short of expectations.”

Leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to ask key questions that stretch the thought process of others to ensure that the problem is fully understood, to expand their sense of accepted risk taking, to explore where something truly different is needed, and to fully leverage what has been learned to date. Leaders need to continually ask, “How do I help remove barriers to top performance?”

The wise conductor doesn’t hold people accountable; instead, they help people realize the importance of accountability and delivering on the promises they made to others. Accountability is built from the passion and confidence in capability that comes out of conversations with a leader or conductor. But it starts with the mindset that people want to be accountable.

2) You believe that accountability only exists in a context of what “we” agreed we are going to accomplish together.

While delegation is an important leadership trait, just assigning responsibilities to others and expecting results on agreed upon dates is a formula for failure.

Creating accountability in others starts with a deep sense of shared accountability between the leader and the owner of the change in the business performance.

The metaphor that is appropriate here is “swim buddies.” Learning to swim is typically not instantaneous and can be challenging, as is learning to adapt to new change at work, and any person is bound to go under water. The leader is there to make sure we stay the course, but also to make sure that no one drowns – to act as a life preserver. As a matter a fact, the leader sentiment is that your success is our success, and OUR failure is not an option.

3) You believe that mistakes are part of the path to success.

The importance of responsibility and accountability is built with a belief and support of people, where their mistakes are a rich part of the path to success. Author Margot Machol Bisnow tells the story of John Arrow, the founder of Mutual Mobile, a highly successful technology company. It turns out that when he was in the fifth grade, he and his friends published a school newspaper that sold out immediately. The problem was they didn’t do a great job fact checking some of the stories, and the principal was furious and called everyone’s parents. All of the kids got in trouble – but John. John’s parents laughed it off and told him to fix his mistakes.

John said that knowing his parents would support him, even when an authority was against him, made him double down and work harder to show that they were right to believe in him. And this belief helped motivate him to become the successful businessperson he grew to be.

4) You believe that work and personal passions need to connect.

A recent study of parents of highly successful entrepreneurs is very interesting. These parents wanted their kids to take ownership, fix problems, learn from their mistakes, and be more confident about their capabilities. But they also understood their kids wouldn’t be happy if they were plugging away at something they weren’t passionate about. So, they raised their kids to follow their passion at the exclusion of other things that were expected of well-rounded young people.

Creating ownership recognizes that we’re more likely to work at something we love, if we are passionate about finding a better way, or if we’re focused on an area where we want to make a difference. Therefore leaders must help people find that passion and match new responsibilities to it as much as possible. It makes it much harder not to own or be accountable to an outcome when what’s at stake is a personal belief that you can and will find a better way that matters to the world.

The Power of Creating Accountability in Others

If your organization has leaders questioning and doubting the accountability of their people, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the way things are being done. Instead of assuming people will let you down, encourage leaders to focus on creating accountability in their teams. Assume people will follow through. Assume they will come up with creative solutions to challenges. Leaders must do this by working alongside their people, by letting people know that mistakes are simply part of the process, and supporting people along the way – no one will be left to drown.

Finally, accountability soars when people get to pursue their passions, and leaders must help people find that passion.

By switching from holding people accountable to creating accountability, you’re likely to see powerful shifts in people’s engagement, attitudes, and even results.

August 29, 2022

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