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"The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year." John Foster Dulles

Tired of being let down by employees? You are far from alone. The "single greatest threat to achieving consistent levels of high performance" is the lack of accountability; it perennially tops the list of issues leaders want to improve. How do you ensure, by this time next year, you are tackling other tough problems - and accountability has become an ingrained part of your culture?

"Crisis of Accountability"

How important is accountability in the workplace? As Roger Connors, CEO of Partners in Leadership and chief researcher for the Workplace Accountability Study, says, "When properly approached, accountability can really be the low-hanging fruit for optimizing organizational performance and accelerating organizational change efforts."

Yet this "low-hanging fruit" seems out of reach. According to the Workplace Accountability Study, which surveyed over 40,000 people across industry lines, most (91 percent) say accountability is critical, but an astonishing 82 percent say they have "no ability to hold others accountable."

The game-changer: the ability to hold others, and ourselves, accountable. It has far-ranging effects on our organizations and can provide the competitive edge needed to thrive. The big question is, of course, how?

The Be-Attitudes of Accountability

Too often, leaders confuse accountability with punishment; that is, they only hold people accountable when they've done something wrong (and perhaps not even then). But the terms are far from synonymous. In fact, the best way to create accountability, according to
CEO and leadership coach Bob Whipple, is to:

"create an environment whereby people do the best they can because they want to do it.... Imagine working in an environment where people do the right things not because they are expected, but because it is in their best interest. In that atmosphere, holding people accountable would nearly always be a positive occurrence rather than negative."

To do this, Whipple recommends adopting the "8 Be-Attitudes of Accountability":

  • Be Clear About Expectations. What do you want your direct-reports to do? How? By when? With what resources? Be explicit when giving directions. As Whipple remarks, "Holding people accountable when the instructions are vague is like beating an untethered horse for wandering off the path to eat grass." Not that you want to "tether" your people - just let them know how much rope with which they have to work.

  • Be Sure of the Facts. If you need to call someone on the carpet for shoddy, late, or subpar work, make sure you have all the facts. Are they, in fact, the ones who did the work? Were they operating under unclear instructions? Did they have to make assumptions because you were vague? Or were they just lazy or ill-prepared? Before you hold someone accountable, ensure you understand what happened.

  • Be Timely. Provide feedback - positive and corrective - immediately. Doing so reinforces the behavior in the former case and discourages in the latter. Waiting only muddies the waters.

  • Be Kind. When giving feedback, keep your tone, language, and mannerisms in mind. Are you delivering the message with respect and compassion? Depending on your approach, you can guide direct reports and build them up - or demoralize and disengage them. Whipple recommends the Golden Rule: Treat others as you'd want to be treated. Better yet, adopt the "Platinum Rule": treat others as they want to be treated.

  • Be Consistent. If you have a rule, it applies to everyone. When you discipline people for breaking it, you do so in a consistent way. Otherwise, you risk the perception that you play favorites or that you are unpredictable. Either way, accountability suffers.

  • Be Discrete. Think of a time when you made a mistake. Would being humiliated in front of your peers have helped the situation any? No. There are no gains to be made embarrassing your people or calling them out in a public setting. Always engage in corrective or disciplinary conversations in private.

  • Be Gracious. Develop the ability to forgive and move on. If someone had a misstep, address it, determine if any support or corrective measures are warranted, and then go forward from there.  Don't hold a grudge.  On the other hand, if a problem is recurrent and a result of apathy, greed, laziness, malcontent, etc., you must take stronger action (e.g. mandating coaching/training, moving to another position, termination). Ignoring someone who consistently flouts the rules or your authority erodes accountability throughout your team and organization. Do you know the difference between a mistake and a performance problem? The answer is a pattern.

  • Be Balanced. Again, "accountability" isn't inherently negative. Be sure to hold people accountable for the good they do. "Nice work on the Smith account." "Your contribution to the presentation was critical." Or "I appreciate the long hours you put in. It made a huge difference." Catch people doing things right. You'll increase morale and decrease the mystique of accountability - it's not that hard. It's noticing behavior. It's addressing it. It's figuring out how to move on, whether on the same path or a different one.

  • The bottom line: If you continue business as usual, your people will continue to let you down. And you'll let them down. Accountability will be at the top of your "must-do" list year after year. You must take concrete steps to foster a culture in which people do their best because it is what they want. When you do, you'll have a new "must-do" for next year - and a motivated workforce that is better equipped to tackle it.


Denise Foley

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