Want to improve accountability? Insist on 2-way streets

by | Jul 10, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

When was the last time you visited Pity City, that imaginary destination where you’re entitled to feel sorry for yourself and your situation?

Pity City welcomes visitors and renters yet outlaws home ownership. As one of my former colleagues used to say, “You can visit Pity City as often as you want, but just remember, you can’t build a house there.”

If I were in charge of Pity City, I’d make all the streets two-way.  One-way streets would be banned. Why?

Two-way streets safely hold people accountable. Otherwise, it’s too easy for people to drive in selfish, careless ways. They absolve themselves of their obligations and start blaming others for not taking responsibility.

Here’s a classic story. A few weeks ago, I was facilitating a workshop for a group of leaders from several different companies. During one of the breaks, a few folks took me on a tour to Pity City. They shared tales of woe about how their team members weren’t accountable for their actions.

Their team members were committing all types of sins, they moaned to me. Missing deadlines. Not following directions. Not meeting standards. And on and on.

From their comments and my follow-up questions, I learned that these workshop participants viewed accountability differently than I do.  The workshop participants saw accountability as a one-way street in which they controlled the flow of information and action. (And probably reluctantly doled out resources.)

As I gleaned from their descriptions of how things worked, the leaders used their status and authority to demand compliance. And yet, they didn’t seem to be providing all the information, tools and resources that people needed to understand and follow through.

In today’s fast-paced, unpredictable and ever-changing business climate, you can’t assume  accountability runs one way. In other words, if you’re in the driver’s seat as the leader, you can’t just hand over the keys and expect others to get the car to the final destination. You’ve got to clarify at least where you’re going, who’s going with you to do the work, and what you expect them to deliver at the end of the journey.

Accountability needs to flow both ways, starting with the team leaders having the self-awareness to assume accountability to set up their team members for success.

Next, team leaders and team members must share responsibility for finding common ground. That means jointly understanding what needs to get done and then doing it, treating each other with dignity and respect all along the journey.

Accountability and action start with communication. As my colleague Sam Yankelevitch explains, “Communication pre-seeds action.” You need to slow down  and invest time upfront, that is, sow seeds that will grow. Specifically, you’ve got to clarify what you’re asking others to do, especially if it’s a complex situation. This often involves you as the leader doing upfront work to get resources lined up, including the team members who will participate, as well as confirming the tasks and defining the performance metrics.

Leaders are accountable for providing psychological safety to all of the team members. In other words, team members must feel safe to speak up, ask questions, take risks and do the work.

Leaders also need to craft a clear, concise and compelling call to action that grabs team members’ attention. You can’t assume that people will hear your request, or see your email, much less read it and fully understand it.

Then, as you make your ask, you need to be available to answer team members’ questions, provide context and other details as well as outline the resources available to them, including budgets, and the expectations you have for the finished product or service.

Once everyone knows their role, what’s expected of them, and their available resources, team members need to be willing to commit. That’s when they start becoming accountable.

To continue the car and road metaphor, the leader and the team members need to work with the music turned low for ease of regular check-ins to track progress. Sometimes, you may just need to seek clarity and confirm understanding. Other times, you may need to pull over and take time to discuss changes in your plans.

Keep in mind accountability is all about everyone accepting responsibility for their actions, and even better, declaring their commitments publicly.

Accountability is not about leaders looking for ways to say “gotcha” or punish people. It’s about everyone collaborating better, including flexing and adapting if the situations change.

For more about how to plant seeds for better accountability, check out the recording of The Habit Crew’s recent webinar, Finding common ground to do things right the first time.

Also, you’re welcome to join the virtual Tight-Loose-Tight meetup on July 21 at 12 noon ET, where I’ll be talking about “Why and how leaders need to embrace Tight-Loose-Tight.” This is the framework I’ve described here. Leaders are tight on the purpose and goals, loose on the execution giving team members some autonomy, and tight on the metrics that measure performance.

Better two-way communication plus the Tight-Loose-Tight framework can lead to increased accountability and fewer visits to Pity City.

Are you ready for this journey?


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