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Supportive Accountability

Accountability is a key ingredient to the success of any organization.

Why, then, does there seem to be such a widespread absence of accountability in the modern workplace?

“Managers don’t hold people accountable here.”

“If only people around here were more accountable for results.”

We often hear these common complaints from both organizational leaders and staff. So, what then is behind this apparent absence of accountability?

A large part of the answer lies in the frequent misunderstanding of the word “accountable” and the concept itself. Accountability is often equated with blame when things go wrong. The statement that “someone needs to be held accountable” is typically used to suggest that someone should be fired. Yet, equating accountability with blame and subjecting people to negative feedback that undermines their sense of pride in their work is counterproductive.

In fact, recent studies suggest that performance reviews that mainly focus on blame are de-motivational. Productivity has been shown to suffer for months after this type of review. This explains why people dread reviews and why many managers avoid giving them.

Another factor that leads to a lack of accountability is the perception that “they” aren’t being held accountable. Accountability seems to be something that others are lacking. It is rare indeed that an individual thinks that they are the one who lacks accountability. It is easier to focus on others in the “blame game,” rather than themselves.

So, what can leaders do to shift accountability from being a negative term to something that’s more productive and positive? The root of the word “account” gives us the first clue.

Accountability simply involves keeping an account of results produced compared to results promised. That is it. It is the basic act of clearly stating actual performance. Nothing more. In order to do this, there must be clearly agreed-upon KPIs that measure a person’s effectiveness in their job. Reviewing an account of actual performance compared to promised performance can reveal if a person is succeeding in some areas and failing in others. The approach is straightforward; there is no blame, and there are no excuses. It’s an objective assessment of the promises a person has made. This helps to set the stage for developing a plan to improve performance; a review can become an opportunity for a coaching discussion rather than a confrontation.

And, while you can have a system of rewards (for better-than-promised performance) and consequences (for worse-than-promised performance) to reinforce accountability, such a system by itself will not bring true accountability about. This is where the concept of supportive accountability comes in. With this approach, you’re not just supporting the person—you’re supporting their commitment to their goals. You’re taking the time to help them define what they wish to achieve and guiding them along the way.

When leadership engenders this level of commitment from and within their people, individuals will naturally embrace being held accountable for results. Shaming people into improving simply doesn’t work. Instead, management can serve as a natural support system for helping people to define and achieve their goals. They will feel more motivated to fulfill the promises they’ve made, and they’ll know that having someone hold them accountable is a good way to support their personal success.


About the author(s):

Tom Willis is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. He had the great honor of serving as CEO for Cornerstone; a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers; and an engineer with the Intel Corporation. His life is all about helping others uncover their talents so they can reach their unlimited potential and their organization can thrive.

| Linkedin: Tom

Brad Zimmerman is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. Zimmerman turned to organizational coaching more than 26 years ago following a successful career in sales and operations. Today, he helps businesses, nonprofits and other organizations develop cultures that transform work environments so people grow and the organizations thrive.

| Linkedin: Brad

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