Everybody, say it together: “Great leaders hold their employees … .” If you said “accountable” you’re dead wrong. And I don’t blame you. It’s a common, and destructive, misconception that hits at the core of human nature.
But if you want your team members to succeed, you have to stop holding them accountable.
The idea may sound provocative, but it’s a critical step toward empowering team members. Here’s why you need to stop holding people accountable if you want your teams to succeed:
It’s the Opposite of Leadership
First, take a second to listen to what you’re saying: “We should be holding her accountable.” The language itself is aggressive. It sounds like we’re accosting people.
It’s not your fault. Our ideas about accountability were set up a long time ago. As children, when we reach for the hot stove, our hand gets slapped. It continues to develop as we get older. If my teenage daughter wants to stay out past curfew, I say “no.” So when she sneaks out anyway, I ground her, and I nail her window shut. As a result, when we grow up, we think of accountability as punishment.
For productive adults, that’s a problem. Nobody wants to be in charge of punishing responsible adults. So accountability becomes this thing left up to the fearless leader. When leaders associate accountability with punishment, they put it off. They don’t give any feedback until things go completely off the rails.
But accountability isn’t punishment, and punishment certainly isn’t leadership. It’s the opposite of leadership because it stifles autonomy instead of promoting it. People want to do a good job. They want to win. Being cynical about that fact breeds distrust.
Think about what happens when an employee constantly has someone looking over their shoulder. It ruins trust.
How important is trust to your organization?
It should be its beating heart. According to the Harvard Business Review, people working in high-trust companies have 74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy, 40 percent less burnout, and 29 percent more satisfaction with their lives.
Not only does this old view of accountability sow distrust, but it also has the opposite of the intended effect of accountability. It leads to negative reinforcement. And we know that negative reinforcement destroys productivity.
Blame Shuts Down Productivity
I just reread a book Douglas Stone wrote, called Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. In it, he highlights what happens in our minds when we are receiving feedback.
First, Douglas notes that the person receiving the feedback is 100 percent in control over how they perceive the feedback, as constructive or destructive. This is true no matter how skillfully the message is crafted. Next, if you’re enforcing accountability after someone has dropped the ball, it is more likely to set off one of the three feedback triggers: the truth trigger (we feel the feedback isn’t true), the relationship trigger (we think the feedback isn’t coming from the right person), or the identity trigger (we internalize the mistake as a flaw in our character).
So, if I decide to hold my new team member, Janet, accountable after she drops the ball on something, it’s more likely she’ll react in one of three ways:
- “Well, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
- “Who is he to say what’s right or wrong?”
- “I blew it. I’m worthless.”
The third scenario is especially bad because it causes shame. Shame has an inverse relationship with productivity and engagement
What happens next? Your teammates experience stacked emotional triggers and eventually break down emotionally. This leads to resignations, kills productivity, stifles innovation, and ruins your culture.
What Leaders Should Do Instead
Instead of trying to force employees to do anything, real leaders encourage self-accountability. Here’s how to create a culture of accountability:
Establish Accountability at the Beginning
Accountability should start at the beginning of an exercise. Be clear about your objectives and make sure your team members are on the same page. Establishing accountability requires a fierce commitment to alignment and clear expectations.
Wondering how? When you assign an objective to a team member, ask them why it’s important to the business and how they are planning to complete it. Then listen to what they say.
Really listen; don’t just scan what they are saying for the answer you want to hear. If what they describe doesn’t communicate alignment, you don’t have it. Try explaining another way, and then ask questions to learn how what you are saying is landing. Continue asking questions until what is described sounds like it will achieve the desired results. Now you have alignment.
Once you have alignment, ask them what they need from you to be successful.
Finally, give team members the resources to succeed. That means providing education opportunities and resources to level them up.
Cultivate Good Commitments
When I attended Stagen Leadership Academy, I learned a powerful tactic for cultivating good commitments, which is necessary to establishing clear expectations, based on a Harvard Business Review publication by Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa. It says the best way to build a culture of accountability is to make commitments public, active, voluntary, explicit, and mission-based. Here’s how it works:
- Public commitments: Ask for commitments to objectives in team meetings, as opposed to 1 to 1 meetings. It’s easier to remember a commitment when it’s attached to multiple faces. Each time they run into someone that was in the meeting when they made the commitment, they get a visual reminder.
- Active commitments: Commitments should always come from a two-way dialogue. You describe the necessary objective and why it’s important to the business (mission), then listen to your team member describe why the objective is important to the business and how they plan to accomplish it.
- Voluntary commitments: It’s not a commitment if it’s forced. You can’t count on “YES” if “NO” isn’t an option. Good commitments are always voluntary. If someone has a choice and they commit, they intend to follow through.
- Explicit commitments: Always establish what by when! Ever been in a meeting in which the task was laid out but there wasn’t a name attached to it? “Everybody” leaves the meeting thinking “Somebody” will take care of it, and “Nobody” does. Explicit commitments establish accountability and look like, “Janet has agreed to complete the task by Friday at noon.”
- Mission-based commitments: Check in with the person agreeing to the commitment and make sure they understand what they’re going to accomplish and why. Wondering how to accomplish this? Simple, ask them. If their vision isn’t lined up with yours as a leader, the communication wasn’t clear.
Once you have a good commitment, you have established clear expectations. With alignment and clear expectations you have set the stage for personal accountability. And, you have put yourself in the leadership position. Leaders don’t hold people accountable, we help them “stay” accountable. Accountability is a personal choice; it’s not something that someone else can DO to you.
Bring in Team Members Who Make Good Commitments and Stay Accountable
Hiring the right project manager is hard work, and can feel like rolling the dice. There are ways to bring in leaders who are quick to commit, stay accountable, and are ready to go on day one. Want to see how it would work for your business? Let’s chat about scheduling a free 120VC consultation.
From the start of his career spent jumping out of helicopters as a Rescue Swimmer in the United States Navy, J. Scott has a long history of leadership, servanthood, and bearing witness to the transformative power of getting shit done. Since starting 120VC he's personally overseen the global transformational efforts within organizations such as DirecTV, Trader Joe's, Blizzard Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Mattel, and others. His team's unique, irreverent approach to change has generated breakthrough results and created meaningful jobs. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, J. Scott is a devoted husband and father and author of "It's Never Just Business: It's About People," and "The Irreverent Guide to Project Management," both available on Amazon.com.