I’ve written and spoken extensively about accountability in the twenty years since we started our company, Learn To Lead: how to do it, why it’s important, the consequences for not doing so, and more. In my recent How to Master the Art of Accountability seminar attendees found it helpful when I identified and outlined the two non-negotiable pillars of accountability, and how to develop both.
Essentially, holding people accountable requires both the right skill set and the right mindset. Knowing how to hold people accountable, but not doing it reflects the wrong mindset. Wanting to hold people accountable, but not knowing how to do it indicates a deficient skill set. In this piece I’ll go over the fine points of each of the two non-negotiable pillars for holding people accountable.
Three Quick Openers on the Importance of Accountability
The First Pillar of Accountability
This includes setting clear expectations for outcomes, essential daily activities and core values. Without clarity there can be no accountability because the question becomes, “Accountable for what?” It also takes skill to effectively give feedback on performance, establish and enforce appropriate consequences, and know what to say when you confront a poor performer. These are not tools that come to you in a dream one night after you’re promoted from advisor to service manager, or from salesperson to sales manager. They must be taught, learned, and applied to perform one’s duty as an effective leader. Because of this need for accountability “how to’s”, the accountability categories of our virtual training library are always the most used by managers from all departments in an organization.
I should emphasize that part of the skill set for holding others accountable mandates that you develop a skillful style as well: it should be conversational more than confrontational. Holding people accountable isn’t a license to be a jerk, to become profane, to shout, or get personal. In fact, those tactics make you look like a leadership amateur. Your approach should be direct, respectful, firm, and attack the performance rather than the performer.
The Second Pillar of Accountability
Mindset is defined as “the established attitudes held by someone.” If you don’t have the right attitude concerning holding people accountable you’re unlikely to do it with urgency or consistency. The right accountability mindset is established when you realize and believe that holding someone accountable isn’t something you do to them, but for them. Frankly, if you believe you’re doing something “to” someone you’ll be reluctant to do it, and will likely apologize for doing your job – making you the “bad guy” and the non-performer “the victim.” However, when you believe you’re holding someone accountable to help them, to correct their course, to facilitate their growth, and to make them more successful, you’ll execute this vital duty without hesitation or apology.
In an age dedicated to political correctness and committed to not doing something that would offend someone else, holding people accountable has increasingly become seen as harsh or unfair. But is it really harsh to let someone know what is expected, how to improve, where they stand, where they need to be and by when, or what the consequence is for failing to do their job will be? If you think about it, it doesn’t really get any fairer than that. In reality, what’s truly harsh is letting people live in a gray area, allowing them to fail, fall further off track, and permit things to get so bad for so long that you have no choice but to remove them; and, they never see it coming or have a chance to correct their course because you failed to tell them. While it’s true that holding an accountability conversation can make both you and the person uncomfortable, that very discomfort is what’s necessary for you both to grow and get better at what you do. What’s more uncomfortable is failing to do your job and having non-producers, or toxic achievers remain on your team, which is unfair to the rest of the team and jeopardizes your own job.
The bottom line is that the best time to start holding people accountable would have been several years ago. The next best time is now. Where holding people accountable is concerned, if you know what to do, why it’s important, and what’s at stake if you don’t do it, and yet still fail to do it, YOU are the one that should be held more accountable for subordinating what’s best for the person and team to your own comfort level. When you think about it, holding others accountable is a cornerstone of any leader’s job description, so expecting you to do you job and hold others accountable seems like a reasonable expectation. Developing the right skill set and mindset—the two non-negotiable pillars of accountability—offers you a road map to get the job done.