Recently, I gave a 60-minute presentation on fostering accountability to a group of mid-level and senior level managers. Each time I present on this topic I am struck by the differences in how people define accountability and the absence of ownership from leaders in their role in holding others accountable.
Why do people avoid accountability?
They do not want to be blamed, found at fault or held responsible for a decision or action that will ultimately affect their job performance and job security. Which leads to the tired excuses we have all heard: “That’s not my job.” If you had told me it was important, I would have done it.” “I was not trained right.” “When is someone going to fix this problem?”
Ironically, blaming others is the exact opposite of accepting personal responsibility and accountability. As leaders, it is our responsibility to get work done through others. Effective leaders define expectations, set performance standards, provide resources, coach and support and then measure results. Rewards and recognition are applied to reinforce good performance and consequences are imposed if expectations are not being met or performance needs to improve. While blaming may be a negative outcome of substandard performance/results, it fails to motivate others into action to correct and improve their performance. In fact, blaming others does not encourage or foster personal accountability; it discourages it. When we blame others, we are a participant in the ‘blame game.’ Other forms of the ‘blame game’ include ‘cover your bases’, ‘watch and wait’, ‘ignore/deny’ problems (‘This too shall pass or we’ve always done it this way”.)
Does this mean we should ignore poor or substandard performance? Of course not! Leaders need to promote a culture of ‘can do’ and ‘problem solving’ which focuses on improving results and outcomes, ‘what needs to be done’ not ‘who is to blame.’
So what can leaders do to role model accountability and promote personal accountability?
Start with redefining accountability. The old definition is synonymous with finding fault, blaming, and accounting for the past (Who is to blame? vs. What can be done?). Embrace a new phrase and definition: Proactive Accountability. It is present and future focused with a call to action. It focuses on:
- What can I do now to achieve the results I want? What problems do I anticipate and what can I do before it’s too late?
- What have I learned and how can I put that learning to future use?
- What else can I do to get the outcomes I desire?’
- Who else can help/guide me or who can I help/guide?
Please join me as I write a continued series of articles and blog posts on fostering and improving accountability.
Until then, let me leave you with a few self-reflective questions for you to ask yourself when assessing how well you role model personal accountability.
- Do I resist being pulled into the blame game? e.g. “That’s a human resource (or other department’s) problem.” “There is nothing I can do, that’s Mary’s/Martin’s personality.” “It has always been like this.”
- Do I take the initiative to clarify my own responsibilities and accountabilities and make clear my expectations/accountabilities of those who take direction from me?
- Do I encourage and support others to proactively clarify their own responsibilities and accountabilities?
- Do I admit my mistakes and model ‘fail forward’? (I share what I have learned from my mistakes and commit to improvements in the future.)
- Do I stay the course by continually asking myself, “What else can I do to achieve the results I want?” (e.g. “What else can I do to foster accountability in my employees?”)
- Do I support without removing responsibility from others?
- When and how often have I redone someone’s work? Return the work to them and support and coach them to success. (You cannot teach a person how to ride a bike by riding it for them!)
- Have I given up on someone and no longer assign certain tasks that are part of their job? Why?
- Do I coach, teach and develop my employees to higher levels of knowledge and performance by asking: “What do you need in the future to succeed with this task/request and deadline?” “Who else could you have asked for guidance/advice in my absence?” “What will you do differently in the future?”
- Do I ensure others have the resources, knowledge and freedom to navigate competing priorities and make decisions?
- Do I promote ownership of results by requiring the individual to participate in the recovery or resolution to improve future outcomes?
Does this seem like a daunting task? Perhaps. Impossible? No!
It all starts with you!
Lynne M. Richards, MBA