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"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." Stanislaw Lec, poet

A missed deadline. A broken commitment. A promise unfulfilled. It's not a big deal, we tell ourselves. It's just one instance. One isolated instance. But like snowflakes, these situations accumulate to create treacherous conditions: they create a culture that tolerates mediocrity and must accept subpar results. How do you avoid an avalanche - or dig your organization out from under one? It's simple: hold yourself accountable. Hold others accountable.

1 in 2: How Do You Like Those Odds?

A common thread weaves its way through all levels of leadership: a failure to hold people's feet to the fire. A Harvard Business Review study examined 5400 leaders worldwide. On the item, "Holds people accountable - firm when they don't deliver," some 46 percent of leaders are rated "too little."

As HBR's Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser write, "In an age of career management and 'psychopolitics' [i.e. managing popularity and maintaining a positive image], where personal interest reigns supreme, who wants to risk being the bad guy?"

And yet, accountability is consistently named as one of the most important factors in effective leadership - and in organizational success. The question is how do you foster a culture of accountability? Become a better leader without being the "bad guy"? It's SIMPLE.

6 Steps to Accountability

In "How to Hold People Accountable," veteran senior executive Torben Rick proposes six clear steps to greater accountability:

S = Set expectations: People need to understand the desired outcome, their role in facilitating that result, the resources at their disposal, and how they're expected to complete the work. Sounds easy enough: the reality is that, in most business, expectations are as clear as mud.
The Partners in Leadership 2015 Workplace Accountability Study, for example, found that 85 percent of employees do not know what their organizations are trying to achieve, and 93 percent are unable to "align their work or take accountability for desired results."

Make It Simple: Don't assume that your people implicitly know and understand your expectations. Instead, as experienced CEO and author Peter Bregman suggests "Have a genuinely two-way conversation" with individuals in which you discuss desired outcomes, how they will work towards them, and how they'll know they're successful. Make expectations explicit, concrete, and above all, known.

I = Invite Commitment: Your people know what's expected of them. Now, why should they care? Why should they do it? What's in it for them? A paycheck is the obvious answer, but that's not enough to motivate and engage your people.

Make It Simple: Take the time to learn about your direct-reports' goals and align them with the company's overall goals. How do they connect? How does one facilitate the other? How does achieving organizational objectives help them accomplish personal or professional goals? When this connection is clear and articulated, it invites employees to commit to the outcome and their part in it.

M = Measure Progress: As Peter Drucker commented, "You can't manage what you can't measure." Measuring performance regularly enables you to hold your people accountable - and to encourage them to hold themselves accountable.

Make It Simple: During your two-way expectation discussion, set fixed weekly check-ins and milestones. All on track? Great. A direct report missed a target? Don't let it slide; immediately determine what happened, why, and how the individual can get back on course.

P = Provide Feedback: Worried about giving feedback and being the "bad guy"? Saying nothing is far worse. According to OfficeVibe, 98 percent of employees will "fail to be engaged" when their leaders provide little or no feedback. Forty percent will be actively disengaged. The majority - 69 percent - say they would work harder if their efforts were recognized.

And they're not looking for never-ending pats on the back. According to HBR research, 57 percent of employees say that they prefer corrective feedback, and nearly three-quarters say that their performance would improve if they received it. As Peter Bregman writes, "Don't be nice. Be helpful."

Make It Simple: Employees, especially Millennials, prefer regular, ongoing feedback. Don't wait for the year-end review to bring up issues - or to highlight strengths. Effective feedback is:
  • Safe. While it is generally productive to praise employees publically - and often - delivering corrective feedback should be done in private. Research shows that people only use about 30% of the feedback they receive; you can boost the odds by ensuring they are comfortable.
  • Specific. Good job. On what? When delivering feedback, whether praise or corrective, be specific. "Your presentation was well-researched and you delivered it confidently. Nice work." Or, "You have a lot of great ideas. In brainstorming sessions, I'd like to see you pose at least one to the group."
  • Timely. As Entrepreneur's Scott Halford writes, "The adult brain learns best by being caught in action." When you notice a behavior you want to encourage or discourage, seize the moment. Again, more employees are looking for ongoing feedback.

L = Link to Consequences: What happens if an employee misses a target? Fails to live up to a commitment? No, what actually happens? Too often, the answer is "Nothing," and this contributes to the culture of mediocrity.

Make It Simple: If there's a misstep, determine what happened. If there's an ability problem (e.g. the employee didn't hit the target because they didn't have enough time or the proper skills), perhaps the consequence is training, more intensive supervision, or adjusting the timeline. If it's a motivation problem, maybe the consequence is a formal reprimand. Whatever is appropriate for your organization, make sure you communicate consequences as clearly, and as early, as you do expectations. One of my favorite quotes comes from Vistage speaker, Balaji Krishnumurthy... "If it's a training issue, give them a year; if it's an attitude issue, give them the weekend!"

E = Evaluate Effectiveness: Torben Rick writes, when you have a consistent system in place, "you'll find that when people are held accountable for the work that must get done, it gets done." How effective is your system for accountability?

Make It Simple: Put these steps into practice, and take the time to evaluate how effective they are. Do your people understand your expectations? Do they understand their role in the desired outcome? Is their performance aligned with goals? Are they delivering on their commitments?

Broken promises and unfulfilled commitments can bury your organization in inefficiency, disengagement, and poor performance. It's only when you can hold yourself and others accountable that you can transform your culture and achieve the results you need. It all comes down to you: are you ready to become accountable for your organization's future?


Larry Hart

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