Accountability. The Best and Worst Leader Habits
For those of you not familiar with us, DX Learning Solutions aspires to be the best in the world at breaking bad leadership habits by designing games and simulations that increase self-awareness and motivate people to continuously improve. As Chief Learning Architect, my R&D team and I are responsible for creating those workshops, which begins with getting information direct from our Learning & Development (L&D) clients about the trends they are seeing and what their cultural needs are.
Lately, many of our clients have been talking to us about a need for greater accountability for their leaders and within their culture. It’s not surprising. Accountability is such a strange and ambiguous concept that we have difficulty even defining it.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines accountable as “Subject to having to report, explain or justify.” Roger Connors & Tom Smith, Authors of The Oz Principle and Change the Culture, Change the Game note that being “subject to” something meant that there is an inherent lack of autonomy involved. They suggest an alternative definition to accountability: “A personal choice to rise above one's circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results—to See It, Own It, Solve It, and Do It”.
We know that this definition still leaves something to be desired. A 2014 OPM report states that 63% of managers report being held accountable for results of specific projects, but only 36% felt they had the authority needed to accomplish those goals. Many of us know this circumstance all too well. One’s personal choice is not the only factor at play and try as we might to ‘rise above [our] circumstances,’ sometimes we don’t have the power.
Even if one’s employees could make the personal choice to achieve desired results, how is a leader supposed to influence that choice? What if they simply choose not to? Is a leader only able to foster an environment in which employees are more likely to want to achieve, or could leaders have a more active role in ensuring the successful achievement of their employees? We interviewed the L&D folks at several of our client companies to find out their thoughts on what bad accountability habits look like in their offices, and then we reduced them down to themes and paired them with Gifs from “The Office”, as the show writers do a great job of demonstrating these habits.
Setting Unclear or No Expectations
We’ve had the meeting. Everyone agrees on the best plan moving forward. So let’s go get ‘em! Hold on...Not so fast! Just because we all agree what we should be doing as a collective, doesn’t mean that we know what our individual roles and responsibilities are going to be.
The most important part of having good accountability habits is setting clear expectations that both parties agree upon. Everyone should know who does what by when. Each deliverable should have one person who is ultimately in charge of final decisions. This would be a good time to pull out those SMART goals and make sure that nothing is being overlooked.
Avoiding Conflict or Not Following-Up
It’s not just enough to set up goals and only revisit at the end with the hope everything went well. There will be frequent miscommunications simply because we are human. We have independent perspectives.
Another major bad habit of communication is avoiding checking in due to conflict avoidance. I speculate that this comes from an experience that most of us have had and tried to avoid: Being micromanaged. We hate being micromanaged so much that many of us are actively afraid of micromanaging others. We convince ourselves that if we check in with someone they will feel micromanaged by us, and we hate the idea of creating that discomfort in others.
In reality, OfficeVibe found that in 2015 “82% of employees really appreciated receiving feedback, regardless if it’s positive or negative”. Your employees want to know they are on the right path, so it’s not a conversion you need to be afraid of. Not so mention, it’s much easier to have an earlier conversation that sounds like “Hmmm…seems like we need to calibrate on this and make sure we’re on the same page” than wait to the end and have a conversation that sounds more like “Well this is not what I was expected at all, now we need to redo a good chunk of this in very little time”
On that note, you still shouldn’t be micromanaging your team. Check-ins are important, but the whole point of delegating tasks is so that you can save time and get to the tasks that your team can’t do. If you are too busy doing their work with them, then you’re not getting to your own which means the company is paying your salary plus their salary for you both to do their job.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially because what is and is not micromanagement can be difficult to nail down. The level of feedback, follow-up, and further instruction that your team needs before they feel micromanaged can be relatively subjective and likely varies from individual to individual.
Oh, you didn’t think leading was going to be easy, did you?
If you haven’t set expectations and/or you haven’t checked in with your team, there’s a good chance that whatever they are working on is going to fall short of what you wanted. When that time arises, it is often a dangerous mixture of disappointment and anxiety over a fast-approaching deadline. The low hanging fruit is to start blaming others to relieve that anxiety.
Blame is like a hot potato. You feel uncomfortable holding on to it, so you launch it at someone else. In response, they feel uncomfortable holding it so they launch it to someone else or back at you. The potato passes around burning everyone’s hands until we eventually throw it on the floor and ignore it, or someone holds onto it dealing with the pain. During that time relationships are being damaged, but nothing is being done to address or fix the problem. The best course of action is to just not throw the potato. Own up to your mistakes and ask the team to help you in your hour of need.
If your people know what you expect from them and knowingly fail to deliver, then a good leader enforces fair consequences. Part of what makes holding people accountable so difficult, and why we recommend not letting it get to this point, is there are a lot of variables that must be considered.
Is this really their fault, or yours for not setting expectations? Did they have the capability, permissions and/or resources needed to accomplish what you asked? Did you make your standards clear? Is this a first-time offense, second-time offense, or is it becoming a pattern? Are the consequences yours to decide or some other entities’ such as policy? If you have to decide the consequences, what consequences do you choose?
This may be the habit that people most think about when they think of holding someone accountable, and why it is such an uncomfortable issue. This is not surprising as we know that memories become more salient when tied to a strong feeling. Having to punish or be punished by someone in the name of ‘accountability’ is always particularly emotional.
Good Accountability Habits
It’s no wonder people struggle so much with accountability. There is an abundance of poor definitions and emotional charge when holding someone accountable, as if we are just making the best out of a bad situation that can’t get any better. Here at DX Learning Solutions we decided that it was best to break the conventions of what adefinitionneeds to be and replace it with a model that is easier to understand could be used at the onset of accountability -- instead of after the fact. If we have to get it down to one sentence, we define accountability as the process by which two or more parties set clear expectations, obtain commitments from each other, do their best to enable success together, follow up along the way, and make adjustments as necessary.
Set Expectations – Who does what by when? Create SMART goals? Set up the parameters of success and failure
Obtaining Commitment – Create a two-way agreement where everyone accepts and understands their responsibilities
Enable Success – Make sure that the other parties have whatever resources, skills, permission, etc. needed for success and that you remove whatever hurdles you can within your power.
Follow Up – Restate expectations. Evaluate trajectory of work done so far. Give and receive developmental feedback.
Adjust as Needed – Debrief miscommunications. Establish mutual goals. Recommit to agreements. Establish consequences if needed.
While this model seems to work best conceptually at a macro process level, we can already foresee the need for smaller micro cycles within the larger context. For instance, if your team thought there would be a resource available that isn’t, you may need to have a quick check-in with the team and make adjustments to that lack of resources and set new expectations to the overall process. The overarching theme to the good habits of accountability is communication and flexibility.
One of our clients really put it into perspective for us. They said that good leaders allow their team to make small mistakes and learn from them. They let their team “Fall off curbs not cliffs”. This reminds us of the importance to let our team fail just enough to learn from it, without it being destructive to the larger process. Just as Michael Scott literally did in The Office, when he fell off his own curb. Hopefully he learned a valuable lesson about watching where he was walking. Enjoy.
Dustin Johnson is Chief Learning Architect at DX-Learning Solutions and Adjunct Professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Illinois Institute of Technology, DeVry University, and National Louis University. Dustin works in Leadership Development, Training and Organizational Culture. He teaches Business, Psychology, Business Psychology, and Statistics. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any of the organizations with which he is affiliated. To get in touch with Dustin feel free to email him firstname.lastname@example.org