Use this time wisely to build accountability

21 December, 2020

Untangle accountability from fear and bureaucracy to unlock better performance.

Many leaders that I speak with feel that the pandemic is a great opportunity to empower their teams and drive great accountability. This is an opportune time for team members to step up and take on more ownership.

However, in their desire to show support, several leaders are micromanaging more and are sending conflicting signals. This is making team members more confused on what is expected from them.

We all know that creating accountability is integral for any high-performing team or company. It is meant to raise the bar by fostering improvement and motivating employees to deliver their best work.

Yet, typical accountability processes tend to trigger feelings of dread among employees, be it a one-on-one chat with the boss or a formal performance review. Instead of being welcomed as an opportunity to get curious and enhance outcomes, these conversations are usually seen by team members through a lens of fear and inadequacy.

Yet, typical accountability processes tend to trigger feelings of dread among employees, be it a one-on-one chat with the boss or a formal performance review. Instead of being welcomed as an opportunity to get curious and enhance outcomes, these conversations are usually seen by team members through a lens of fear and inadequacy. Leaders, too, perceive these tasks as an unpleasant obligation – while at the same time realising the need for greater accountability.

Research confirms this anecdotal evidence. In one study, 91% of respondents ranked “the ability to hold others accountable” as a top leadership need. However, 82% of managers felt that they have limited-to-no ability to hold others accountable.

A Gallup study on performance reviews revealed that only 21% percent of employees strongly felt that they have control over their own metrics and a whopping 70% believed that the process wasn’t objective. No wonder then that 69% of employees felt they weren’t living up to their potential at the workplace.

So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can foster greater accountability within teams. What steps can you take to increase the effectiveness of your accountability processes?

In his Harvard Business Review article, transformational change expert Ron Carucci offers the following definition: 

Accountability processes are the formal and informal ways that leaders talk about, assess, and affirm the contributions of those they lead and the improvements they can make to strengthen those contributions. They include everything from annual performance appraisals to routine check-ins with your boss.

The way these procedures are conventionally structured is less than ideal. Appraisals, for instance, are essentially a scorekeeping exercise with an inherent negative bias: leaders feel compelled to hunt for mistakes and “mark down” failures. Employees are categorised into specific boxes, or even pitted against each other, which can make them feel insignificant or threatened.

It is critical for leaders at all levels to make changes to increase accountability while also honouring the work of their team members. Here are ten recommendations to consider:

1. Bring dignity to the process.

Perhaps the biggest problem with current accountability procedures is that they often end up humiliating team members and making them feel small. When accountability is purely score-driven, leaders demand rote answers and slot employees into predetermined categories. Some companies even have a “name and shame” culture around performance metrics – which is a highly ineffective way of trying to boost morale. On the other hand, investing the process with dignity and humanity allows you to facilitate genuine improvement and inspire team members. When people feel psychologically safe and respected, they can start to unlock a better version of themselves.

2. Hold yourself accountable.

As a manager, it’s easy to get frustrated with your team and think, “Why aren’t they getting it? Why aren’t they doing their part?”. It’s harder to take a step back and ask yourself, “Is there something I could do differently to help them?”

Poor accountability may be caused not by lack of effort but by deeper problems such as unrealistic targets, lack of clarity around role and responsibilities, and inadequate resources. In her HBR article on this topic, leadership coach Melissa Raffoni suggests asking yourself the following questions: 

Have I been clear about my expectations? Have I asked what I can do to help?Have I taken time to brainstorm and review processes? Have I built a plan of action with my team member?

3. Become self-aware.

What non-verbal signals are you sending out during accountability discussions with team members? Is your demeanour welcoming and open, or is it harsh and closed off? Being mindful of tone and facial expressions will help you create a productive two-way dialogue. 

Of course, it all begins with your own mindset. How do you feel when you think about conducting a performance appraisal? If you find yourself getting tense, irritable and fidgety, work towards shifting your own mental state from negative to positive.

4. Focus on learning.

In theory, several organisations emphasise the value of failure as a means to learning and innovation. In practice, however, they treat mistakes punitively, using the available data to assign blame and punishment. Hence, employees sweep their failures under the rug or get drawn into an unproductive finger-pointing game.

By focusing less on bureaucratic scorekeeping and more on your team members’ success, you can transform failures into opportunities for improvement. Carucci highlights the following insight from Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer at Microsoft: 

We are learning to not just reward success, but also reward people who fell short while getting us closer. We want it to be acceptable to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” Learning from our mistakes gets us closer to our desired results — that’s a new form of accountability for us.

5. Mention, invitation, conversation.

In his HBR piece on accountability, Jonathan Raymond offers a useful three-step framework to work through any initial defensiveness and move towards a meaningful discussion:

  • Mention: Raise small but concerning behaviours in an informal way. By bringing up what you notice right away, instead of waiting for a full-blown crisis, you can start to build a long-term dialogue.
  • Invitation: Invite your team member to think about the core underlying issue behind a pattern of problematic incidents.
  • Conversation: Guide them towards that “aha” moment and help them to see how addressing this issue will lead to professional success and, in all probability, personal growth as well.

6. Draw out information.

Instead of simply offering your own take and issuing orders, approach the discussion from a place of curiosity. Ask questions that elicit stories, such as “What was your biggest learning this month?” or “What are you most proud of this quarter?”. For underperforming team members, Raffoni offers the following examples: 

If your team member is constantly missing deadlines, you could begin by saying, “I’ve noticed that you seem to need a little more time to get the work done lately.” Provide specific examples, then ask, “What can we do to help you get back on track?” If a team member has failed to reach their quarterly goals, you could say something as simple as, “How do you feel your work has been going this quarter?” and gauge their initial reaction.

Questions help employees assess their performance without becoming defensive. Remain open-minded and listen with a positive intent. You might discover that their underperformance isn’t being caused by incompetence, but due to other obstacles. Avoid responding with judgmental language like “that’s wrong” and “but you should have…”.

7. Get on the same page.

A crucial step towards accountability is developing a shared understanding with your team members. Start by setting crystal-clear expectations: what does success look like, and how will it be measured? Include your team in defining goals and standards. When people play a part in setting the bar, they’re much more likely to live up to it – or even exceed it.

Adopt this collaborative approach during check-ins and appraisals, too. As you identify underlying issues, find solutions and map out a path for improvement, use strategies like recapping and repetition to ensure that you are on the same page.

8. Commit to accountability.

Despite the most productive-seeming conversations with team members, things often carry on the same as before, which can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved. You can increase follow-through by making a commitment to accountability. Put down the plan in writing – what, who, when and how – so you can refer to it. Agree on ways to check in and measure progress; weekly milestones, for example, are a good way to stay on track.

End the discussion by scheduling a follow-up meeting. If you have agreed to offer managerial support in the form of coaching, resources or realigned workloads, schedule it into your calendar at the earliest.

9. Appoint process champions.

In certain organisations, the complex structure and constantly-evolving work processes can make it tough to nail down accountability. In his HBR article, Ron Ashkenas recommends appointing process champions to address this difficulty: 

Especially for activities that cut across different parts of the company, process champions will have end-to-end responsibility for achieving the desired metrics. These are difficult roles to play since they often come without full authority for all of the resources, but they are a step in the direction of single accountability for dispersed activities. 

10. Enact consequences.

If you have executed all of the above steps with a team member over a significant period of time, without seeing any success, then it may be time for more serious consequences. At this point, a manager has three choices: repeat the process and hope for success; reassign them to a role that is a better fit; or release them. It goes without saying that the final step should be taken once other possibilities have been exhausted.

Accountability isn’t a one-off event, nor should it be synonymous with blame and punishment. After all, the ultimate aim is to facilitate high-quality work, which is impossible in an atmosphere marked by fear, humiliation or robotic scorekeeping. Managers must view their accountability processes as a vital tool to improve the performance of team members – rather than simply checking a bureaucratic box.


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