Keys to Creating a Culture of Healthy Accountability

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You can also find this article published by The Business Journals.

Many managers and leaders dread having to hold people accountable. I’m fascinated by the number of work-arounds leaders create to bypass holding an employee accountable to widely agreed upon productivity targets or healthy rules of engagement.

I’ve advised and coached leaders who have spent upwards of a decade working around an employee or manager, sometimes developing woefully inefficient processes that frustrate and irritate dozens of other people. When they tell me about the situation, it is clear that they’ve simply accepted this as typical and okay.

It may be typical, but it is far from okay! Think for a moment about the wasted time and energy — not to mention the emotional toll on the leader caused by unnecessary stress and anxiety. Further, the longer the process continues, the more accommodations that have to be made.

Here are five keys to create and sustain a culture of healthy accountability based on my experience working with senior leaders and executives around the country. The power of these keys lies in the adaptive conversations that take place within your organization. Having your leaders wrestle with this information together is the secret sauce.

While this process was developed for a medium-sized client of my newly formed advising firm, the principles also work for smaller organizations (profit or not-for-profit) and large multinational corporations. These 5 keys are now the foundation of a dynamic workshop designed to help leaders create a culture of healthy accountability within their organizations.

1. Recognize our Fundamentally Flawed View of Accountability. In organizational life we often create a false choice between compassion/empathy and healthy accountability. False choices are created for a number of reasons, but the primary one seems to be that viewing things in a binary fashion makes decisions easier.

There has to be a better way. Instead of viewing accountability as an expression lacking compassion, organizational leaders need to see it as a gift to be accepted from — and given to — others.

As I look back on my 20+ years in the workforce, the people who served me best were often the ones who challenged me and held me accountable to a high standard. At the time, it certainly did not feel great. Upon reflection, however, it is clear those were the people who helped me become the leader I am today. Here are a few simple questions that leaders can consider together:

 Why is it so difficult for us when we are held accountable by others?

What keeps us from holding others accountable when we know it is the right thing to do?

What excuses do we offer (ourselves and others) when we are unwilling to hold someone accountable to clearly defined expectations?

2. Understand the Playing Field. Every question or comment defines, in some way, the conversation’s playing field. This is the field upon which attitudes, ideas, frustrations, hurts, dreams and desires will compete.

Leaders regularly accept the playing field that is presented to them by stakeholders without consideration. Whether you are a parent or a manager, you know those times when you are 10 minutes into a conversation and you think, “Uh-oh. This isn’t going well. I thought I was just answering a simple question! How did we get to this point?!”

Some may think I’m too harsh or suggesting that all frustrated employees (or children) are nefariously looking for ways to undermine leadership. That is not my intent. Ask yourself this question: “when I am frustrated with a member of my family, do I tee up the conversation in a way that bolsters their argument or do I present information in a way that gives me a greater chance of winning?”

Right. Presenting our ideas so that they win the day is simply human nature. We do it. Others do it.

That’s why as leaders we have to lead with questions instead of simply reacting to a comment or question. When we react we are accepting the playing field as it has been defined. Questions help the leader determine the assumptions and beliefs that are driving the behavior and actions. Questions help the leader understand what is really behind the comment or the complaint.

Bottom line: in order to ask good, pertinent questions the leader must listen well.

         Think of a time when you received a negative comment or criticism. What was going on in you that led to a quick rebuttal or response? In other words, what kept you from listening well?

             Describe a scenario in which you reacted quickly and, in time, the playing field that you stepped on was not the one you anticipated.

3. Change the Playing Field (Learn to Reframe). Changing the playing field is only effective if the leader understands the current playing field being presented. In my work with organizations, I have found that the presenting issue is rarely the real, underlying issue. When a leader has the ability to reframe a challenge or topic, it helps others see the situation differently. The reframe often helps people focus on more important things, like values and principles.

With accountability, reframing should always lead to an individual’s ownership over their next step. Instead of making decisions for others, the leader requires the individual to make a decision within the bounds of the organization’s values, principles and strategies. The reframe is a critical element for success in this endeavor.

Describe a scenario where the presenting issue was not the real issue (Think about times that you have responded to the presenting concern and then the “concern” changed. This process often repeats until everyone is frustrated).

What is a helpful reframe?

4. Resist the Urge to Rescue. Throughout this process the leader will have many opportunities to lower the tension and “rescue” the individual they are holding accountable. I’ve coached many leaders who recognized a history of enabling others to persist in a state of “victimhood,” believing that they were, in fact, helping them. It rarely, if ever, turned out well for the individual or the organization.

The victim mentality (for further reading: 4 Essential Principles For Addressing Victim Mentality) is characterized by the blaming of others for one’s own failures or disappointing results. All of us have met people who regularly talk about how others (boss, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, employees) have done things to them and how others are responsible for their personal challenges and failures.

Sometimes we are those people. I have accepted a victim mentality in my own life that led to blaming others for my own disappointing results. This basic human tendency is why it is critical that in accountability our reframe always must lead to the individual’s ownership of their next step.

Describe a time when you took on a victim mentality. What was the result?

Describe a time you recently acted as a “rescuer.” What were you thinking and/or feeling when you decided to rescue? What was the outcome?

5. Create Clarity of Expectations. When an individual chooses to join in the forward-moving endeavor, it is critical in the moment to clarify expectations and next steps. Painting a picture of what accountability will look like moving forward will make it an easier path to walk. I encourage those I work with to have numerous planned touch-points in the first four weeks so that a new, healthier rhythm can be established.

These five steps are a beginning, and in no way exhaustive. What are some strategies that you utilize to hold employees accountable?

On the other hand, if you recognize an accountability avoidance behavior in your organization, let’s talk. Joyner Advising Group exists to help forward-looking leaders create alignment. To learn more, check us out here.

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