Of all the things we manage, coordinating the work of others is one of the most complicated and unpredictable. Not only do we need to ensure that deadlines are met, and that the quality and quantity of work are up to standards, we also have to deal with each team member’s idiosyncrasies and our own reactive tendencies when the timelines, quality or quantity are not up to par. Holding people accountable while navigating all of these variables can get confusing.
Let’s cut through some of the confusion, starting with a few definitions:
“I willingly stand up and account for myself.” Accountability is a characteristic of a person who truthfully accounts for their actions, whether they hit or miss the mark.
This is something I need to do. I may or may not want to do it, but because others are counting on me, I need to do it. Responsibility has the social element of shame entangled with it.
When a person takes responsibility for themselves, they hold themselves accountable.
This is how I view someone else. Do I hold them as truthful, competent, fallible, sincere, angry, lazy etc.? What we hold in our minds are the beliefs, views and judgements of others.
Following these definitions, it seems impossible to “hold” someone accountable. You can hold the view that they do or don’t take accountability for themselves, but you can’t hold someone in a way that makes them stand up and account for themselves, if you did it would be called responsibility.
In groups and teams, the larger you get, the more necessary it is to document responsibilities. Our firm is five people and we document through an action/decision register all of our decisions and actions. When there were two in our organization, we rarely had a need for it.
Responsibility is one of the easiest of management tasks. Take a sheet of paper, make three columns and title them:
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I realize this isn’t anything new. What I’m pointing to is the non-emotional, non-judgmental process of responsibility. If there was another column called “Or Else” we could add the consequences of the responsibility not being met. And it’s when there is an “or else” that confusion is created.
Two flavors of Consequence:
Interrupting the workflow - and the pain that may cause to the project, team, organization.
We’ve documented the responsibility, so when I miss the mark it’s now evident to everyone that I have not met the deadline. The fear of this alone is a driver for me to take action. I don’t want to be onstage having failed. An added complicating factor is that the guilt/shame consequence may have a threat or punishment attached to it, and now we're in really confusing territory.
Most of this confusion is about the holding.
What does it mean when I say I’m holding them accountable? Does it mean I need to give them consequences? If I do give consequences, are they effective in making that person meet their deadlines in the future?
If this is confusing to you, the first place to look is how you hold the other.
Generally people will be accountable to things that they are committed to. No one has to tell us how to prepare ourselves to go out in public. We care about how we appear to others, so naturally we are committed to transforming our pajama wearing, bed-head self into the person who walks out the door ready to be seen by the world.
If we’re committed to health, we hold ourselves accountable to exercise and eat right. And if we’re committed no one has to remind us to do it.
Accountability is directly related to commitment. And, this is a powerful way to hold others; as someone who cares about their commitments.
This is a shift from—managing people (making sure someone does what they said they would do) to—holding others as people with good intent.
Then we don’t need to get tangled up in who they are that caused them to not meet their responsibility, and we can go back to the commitment they made, and see what got in the way of it.
It also helps to know that commitment is fluid. A good leader/manager checks in on commitments as the conditions change.
One more word to add:
If you and I are committed to the same thing, we have shared commitment. This is one goal of leadership—to get shared commitment. From there, you can manage the process, not the people.
The opposite of commitment is compliance.
If you insist that someone does something and they really don’t want to do it, this is compliance. As a manager, or parent, if I go for compliance, I have to manage someone. You already know that managing processes is relatively easy. But, managing people through compliance is hard, unsustainable, ineffective and unrewarding.
A place to try on shared commitment for effective leadership:
Being clear about commitments, and holding people as though they care about their commitments, helps to nurture a growing sense of accountability.
Having a few ground rules about meeting commitments is helpful. Here are a few common ones:
Ground Rules for Meeting Commitments:
We define commitment as an evaluation of the time, energy and resources it will take to meet a goal, and our willingness to account for our actions once we commit.
If we want commitment, we ask directly for it.
We work on understanding each other and advancing ideas that are in the best interest of “us.”
We communicate as soon as we need to update a commitment or move a deadline.
It is not a sin to miss a deadline, but it is a sin to show up at the deadline and communicate that you can’t deliver.
We agree to a learning for all when any one of us misses our commitments.
It’s also helpful to agree on a process for handling the moments when people do not meet their commitments.
Here is one possible progressive process:
The first time I miss my commitment:
We inquire as to why, and if I’m still committed we move the date and keep the commitment.
The second time I miss my commitment:
We inquire as to why, and then “we” determine at that point if we should move the date again, give the assignment to someone else or drop the assignment altogether.
We acknowledge that this commitment is either not a priority and we can drop it, or it’s still a priority and it needs to go to someone else. Ultimately, if people consistently miss their commitments, they are probably in the wrong position.
Here are a couple things to experiment with.
Model accountability: If you stand up and account for yourself, good, bad, or ugly, others in your care will be more apt to follow. Taking the risk as a leader to say “I messed up” makes it ok for others to do the same.
When you notice someone taking responsibility for their actions, celebrate!
At your next leadership meeting: Initiate a dialogue with your team about accountability and commitment versus compliance. Share the possible ground rules and process above and allow the team to add, subtract or change the list to make it their own. Once you create a list of ground rules, ask if everyone would be willing to commit to supporting and holding each other accountable to the rules. If you get any “NO’s” (which is also a commitment) then see what’s missing and keep working the rules until you have a shared commitment.
Now you as the leader have a process to manage, rather than trying to manage compliance.
By now it’s clear that punishment, guilt and shame don’t really belong in this process. The set-back of the team, and the social shame/guilt I feel when I miss a deadline, are consequence enough. If you, as the leader, hold others as the kind of people who meet their commitments, let that guide how you respond when the ground rules are broken.