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It’s Time for a Mindset Shift on Accountability

Protecting the decisions and commitments we make to one another
Keith Hadley
Contributing Writer

Leaders of truly healthy organizations learn to simply think differently — and it impacts every aspect of their decision-making and actions. Therefore, the journey of organizational health involves a number of significant mindset shifts.

One of the hardest things a consultant or coach must undertake is the changing of a mind. Heck – it’s hard to change our own minds about our tried and true methods let alone someone else’s! The accomplished people I’ve encountered attribute much of their success to their insight, hard work and cultivated relationships.

Continued success, we reason, involves using the muscle memory of the past approaches, methods and beliefs that got us here. But, if we want to improve, we must embrace the process of unlearning and relearning what we thought we already knew. This isn’t a one-and-done moment — it’s a mindset shift.

Perhaps the most challenging responsibility leaders carry is the need to hold others accountable. Can I invite you into a mindset shift that will unlock the impact of accountability in your organization?

Punitive to Protective Accountability

Most understand and experience accountability as something negative and punitive — in reaction to a failure to meet objectives or behavioral standards, we must find the person at fault to inflict some blame or punishment. Therefore, accountability must be avoided at all costs, promoting an unhealthy fear of discovery.

We all struggle at times in our work. A normal fear-based reaction is telling others “Everything’s under control” and then managing the problem in isolation. We often see a whole team, each privately managing their functions and sharing various versions of “sunshine and lollipops” in team “report out” meetings. All the while, there is a growing sense of mistrust and misalignment as each member suspects that something is off in the business, but “out of respect” for each other, they keep their thoughts to themselves. This artificial posturing creates delay, sows discord, and promotes confusion. Worse, this modeled behavior is magnified and cascaded to next-level leaders and teams and sows cross-functional misalignment and discord. “Us vs. them” thinking takes root and creates ample space for unmet customer needs, disillusioned and cynical employees, and opportunities for competitors to leverage. Therefore, shifting your team’s mindset on accountability can be a significant source of competitive advantage.

The whole point of accountability is to create the conditions for achieving results. If we see accountability first as protective and positive, we will act proactively — offering help, support, and the insight needed to get ahead of issues before we fail. In that sense, we can lean into accountability as something welcome – tapping into those in the best position to give helpful input. More often than not, this is our peers and our subordinates — and yes, sometimes even our boss. When we give explicit permission to those around us to speak into our work, we don’t abdicate our responsibility to get the work done. Instead, we create conditions in which we can do our best work. When we choose to address issues in real time, even publicly, we can close smaller gaps in performance or behavior more quickly.

Positive Accountability Requires More Courage

Some may fear this approach is too soft or indirect — nothing could be further from the truth — it requires courage. Any knucklehead can fire a salesperson for losing a key account (e.g., reactive and punitive). It requires greater emotional fortitude to confront that salesperson months earlier to say, “What you’re doing is not good enough.” We are asking leaders to develop their team’s emotional and professional maturity to the point where they can both give and receive feedback on the following:

  • Individual behaviors that may be holding the team back – Whether from personal style or an annoying character trait, team members call out behaviors that impact the team. We see the need all the time to address behaviors such as silence, defensiveness, verbal domination, posturing, sarcasm, and tardiness. With such behaviors, we remind our clients that once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence and the third time’s a pattern. Great teams point out the anomalies and coincidences long before they become patterns.
  • Problems in each other’s respective areas of responsibility – While everyone on the team has different roles, we’re all in the same boat. Too often, team members act as if “my side of the boat isn’t sinking, so it’s not my problem.” We all have a responsibility for the team beyond our own function.
  • Questions about each other’s approaches and methods – Too often, team members hold back when they should be curious. If something doesn’t make sense, or you see an opportunity, ask the question and put the issue on the table. This behavior is a catalyst for “Wonder,” which is the launching pad of “Invention” and “Discernment” – which can lead to breakthroughs. Note: Table Group’s “Working Genius” assessment will walk you through all six activities required for innovation and productivity.

Keys to Positive Accountability

  • Enter the danger – Rather than avoid the awkward moment, seek it out. Find those moments of truth and take the risk to strengthen the decision or relationship.
  • Tell the kind truth – Use words that help prevent a defensive reaction. Instead of “this idea is stupid,” try “I’m concerned this idea won’t work.” This promotes rather than shuts down a discussion.
  • Give a soft landing – It is natural to react defensively to feedback. Instead, thank your peer for her feedback, even if you disagree. Recognizing it took courage for her to “enter the danger.” Be curious and explore the feedback.
  • Permission to protect – Give each other explicit permission to give feedback. Inviting and welcoming input reveals proper humility and self-confidence, not insecurity.
  • Real-time – Most people avoid the conversation and put it off until it is “safer” later. Instead, address issues right away. If someone is checking email instead of engaging in the meeting, call it out immediately, kindly, but directly — especially if it’s a reminder of an agreed-upon team standard. It’s not about embarrassing them; it’s about protecting a standard of team behavior.
  • Direct – Most people talk about each other when frustrated or concerned. Instead, we should be talking to each other.
  • Micro-language – We often see teammates use macro-language (e.g., “Some people aren’t on board with this idea.”) when they should be more specific (e.g., “Pat, you seem like you’re holding back.”)
  • Close small gaps quickly – Most teams avoid uncomfortable conversations until the gap is so large it can’t be ignored. Instead, commit to addressing things right away, closing small gaps quickly.

Putting It All Together

It may be helpful to practice what this could sound like — here are some examples:

  • Positive: “I’ve got some feedback that may be hard to hear, but I see potential in you to improve, and I’d hate for this behavior to get in the way.”
  • Protective: “I may be misreading the situation, but I sense our project budget is starting to expand. Am I wrong? What do you need?
  • Proactive: “I’m concerned. I see a small problem, but if we address it now, we’ll avoid a bigger problem later.”
  • Permission: “Hey, I’d like to lean on the trust we’ve built to give you some feedback. Can I do that?” -or- “Would you give me your feedback on something I’m working on? I want to ensure I get this right?”
  • Public: “This is a little thing, but it makes a big difference. I need everyone fully engaged. Robin, would you mind putting your phone away unless it’s an emergency, of course.”
  • Peer-to-Peer: “We will collaborate a ton on this project. Can I count on you for candid feedback on the stuff I’m working on or even how I’m showing up in these meetings? Are you ok if I do that for you as well?”

In his book, The Motive, Patrick Lencioni reminds us that people who see leadership positions as a reward or a perk are more likely to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Responsibility-driven leaders recognize it as a duty that serves the people they lead and dramatically increases the team’s potential.

Positive accountability on teams means protecting the decisions and commitments we make to one another and protecting each other’s reputations and potential for impact.

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