For a variety of reasons I have recently been encouraged to consider where accountability sits within our businesses and cultures. Many would agree that it has always been one of the core inputs to success as a leader. However, how many of us can state with certainty that it is well understood in theory and more importantly in practice and application?
Accountability is defined as, the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. (1)
The word obligation is interesting in the above definition. I see many managers who balk at this type of ‘obligation’. It is often easier to work in a space of denial rather than acceptance that leadership is an earned right not a response to a title and is never enhanced through bullying or threatening behaviour. Embracing the responsibility of leadership and being transparent in all that you do is a great next step to leadership improvement and credibility in the eyes of others.
Many leaders I have worked with would nod at reading this, acknowledging the importance of being accountable and holding their team members accountable. Interestingly various studies and personal experience highlights that often the same leaders direct reports differ on how this is applied in reality. After all, as a leader how your team members perceive you and make choices as to whether to follow you is a decision made by them, not you.
Being accountable is an attitude and behaviour. As leaders we must hold ourselves accountable first.
What we do matters more than what we say.
Over the past few months I have been making notes as to the types of behaviours, attributes and attitudes that restrict or block people/leaders from being accountable. It is not an exclusive list although does highlight many of the core restrictive inputs to being accountable, especially prevalent in leaders:
- Denial: inability to see their part to play and contribution to cultures, situations and outcomes. Quite often this relates to the element of fear mentioned below.
- Pride: unwillingness to accept the views of others; inflexible thinking; arrogance and other related attitudes will stifle how accountable you are prepared to be. Importantly, others will see this very clearly, impacting your ability to influence and develop trust in and from your team.
- Recognition of impact: taking credit for work completed by others and conversely not accepting when things go wrong. Relates to blame.
- Failure to acknowledge or understand the culture of your business and sub-cultures that exist within smaller business units and teams.
- Blaming others for what is in existence or where it is at. You are the leader…be accountable and lead!
- Lack of self-awareness and emotional intelligence: understand the influence and impact you have on others. Use it to the advantage of all. The satisfaction and benefits far outweigh the stress of the alternatives.
- Filtered information acceptance: be honest and upfront in your conversations, even when it is hard…in fact, especially when it is hard.
- Fear: the fear of the unknown; change; your own capability; how things will be accepted and many other negative fear-based elements can stop accountability in its tracks.
- Make it about themselves: inability or unwillingness to put others first. Being a leader is a privilege and acknowledging that your role is about other people first and foremost, is a big step for many however is a critical aspect of effective leadership.
As leaders we are obligated to lead, which includes setting our team members up for success. It is unfair and unreasonable to expect people to understand our expectations if we have not clearly explained the context and parameters. Clarity matters. The onus is on us first. This can only be achieved if the responsibilities, tasks and expectations are clear and understood in the first place. A great way to lose trust and credibility is to hold others accountable for what we have not done initially and reinforced along the way.
To expand upon this point the simple step-process below that I created some years ago highlights 5 core steps that assist leaders in practice. It is a simple reminder that we can only hold others accountable to what was set up and clarified correctly in the initial phases of the relationship or role i.e. be clear about responsibilities, ownership and expectations. The ability to measure the performance including inputs and outcomes of every one of your employees and the team as a whole is important. Lastly, supporting the process of improvement and change through coaching and development shows that you care enough to be part of the solution rather than a manager who prefers to challenge from afar and criticise without assisting to improve the situation.
One of the key elements of accountability is the comfort to have the ‘right’ conversations. Being accountable is addressing all issues and providing feedback for positive behaviours also. This is not something that we pick and choose depending on our own levels of comfort or fear. You are either all in or you are out!
Strong relationships with high trust allow us to have the right conversations. In all of our relationships, both inside and outside of the workplace, we earn the right to hold others accountable. A surface level conversation once every few months will never cut it. I believe there is no conversation that cannot be had – with the caveat that it is what happens in between the formal discussions that enables us to ‘go there’.
Assessing the reality of situations and relationships is an important skill to gain confidence in these situations. Emotional intelligence and the ability to assess where an individual is ‘at’ will provide a platform for trust, connection and relationships with meaning. Once established most of these conversations become less stressful, relative to the depth of relationship.
One of the biggest challenges to accountability is politics and gamesmanship. These negative behaviours have very little useful contribution to holding ourselves accountable let alone others. In fact, whether it is clear to you or not most people can see politics in play early on – this is a relationship and credibility killer.
In my view those who feel the need to spend most of their time in this space often lack genuine direction, confidence and self-esteem. This style is a way to compensate for gaps such as these, along with skill and capability to own the relationships. Being accountable is a choice, but don’t fool yourself into thinking others cannot see through the masquerade.
Being consistent in your approach and following through on your commitments is a significant contributor to being seen as accountable.
Be an accountable leader by helping your team members through coaching and building a connection where the responses to your questions have depth and meaning. Most people cannot interpret feedback to the point where they are able to translate this information into a series of meaningful actions leading to growth, improvement or change. Interestingly, feedback instead of coaching is what actually occurs more often than not. Feedback has its place within the coaching methodology or framework but is neither a replacement for nor the same as coaching. The core mantra here is to give much more than you take.
The brief video below from Kevin Eikenberry highlights the importance of knowing that accountability is everyone’s responsibility…including yours!