What is the first thing that jumps to mind when you hear the question: “Who is accountable for this?”
It’s an interesting experiment to ask people for their personal definition of “accountability.” I’ve heard everything from, “responsibility” to “blame.” Some people describe accountability as a quality or characteristic; others frame it as finger pointing, obligation or duty.
This exercise reminds me that our definitions and perspectives really are shaped by the experiences we have. (And those definitions will ultimately determine our responses.) Right now in workplaces, homes, and communities people are “experiencing” accountability. Some of those experiences will be healthy and empowering. Some will be de-motivating and demoralizing.
From my personal lessons on the topic, I’ve come away with the understanding that accountability is not something you can “put on” another person. You can certainly hold people accountable, but you cannot “make” them accountable. Ultimately it’s something we must choose for ourselves. That brings me to a strong conclusion: When accountability is forced, the very intention is crushed.
Managers, supervisors, and even parents can really wrestle with this! Somewhere along the line, they’ve decided the best way to ensure accountability is to create “have to – or else” scenarios. Accountability becomes a list of rules and requirements, deadlines, quotas and dire consequences. No wonder some people shrink from the word!
In the workplace “have to’s” sound like “mandatory meetings” and “required training.” Relying on mandates like those is an illusion. Perhaps you can make people do a thing, but proceed with caution! Be careful not to confuse compliance with commitment. They are very different indeed!
Consider the story of a young child at a family funeral. Too young to understand the emotional context of the funeral reception, she is bouncing and spinning and generally being…four. Her father asks her to please sit down and “be still.” She is able to do that for at least 30 seconds, before flying out of the chair again. After several requests, dad stops asking. He picks her up and places her in a chair. He firmly tells her, “You will sit in this chair for five minutes. You will not get out of this chair.” Five minutes later he returns to praise her for being “such a good girl.” She matter-of-factly responds, “I am sitting down on the outside, but I am standing up on the inside!”
The “have to” may seem easier in the short term; we issue the order and people do to what we want them to do. How expeditious! It seems like we are making progress, but beneath the “have to” resentment grows and resistance builds. People are standing up on the inside! (This is like driving down the freeway, with the emergency brake fully engaged. You may be getting somewhere, but you are tearing up the car!)
Recently someone shared a good example of forced accountability at work. For several consecutive weeks, this employee had worked through the weekend (without being asked) to meet an important deadline. It was Friday and he was looking forward to time off with his family. Then he received a terse email from his manager. The subject line read: MANDATORY MEETING SATURDAY – ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS! Even before opening the message he was stomping mad!
As we talked it through it I asked, “What about this is really upsetting you?”
He answered, “To me the message read, ‘Your personal plans aren’t important. Your commitment has gone unnoticed, and you’ll be at this meeting…or else.’ If I’d been acknowledged or even asked, I’d have looked for a way to make the meeting work. I wasn’t acknowledged and I wasn’t asked. It was a summons! I felt like a child being ordered to the principal’s office!”
(I don’t even need to tell you how this employee felt when he realized the meeting was called to discuss performance issues that didn’t concern him. He’d changed his plans to hear an irrelevant message! )
Even with an awareness of how counterproductive it is to force accountability, I can almost hear the objections, “If I don’t require my employees to do things many of them won’t! I’ve got people who do the bare minimum, just enough to squeak by.”
To that I’d offer seven tips for building authentic commitment and empowering people with accountability:
- True accountability is deeply rooted in purpose. When people have a strong sense of purpose, they hold themselves accountable. They understand the difference they can make. There is personal meaning in the work. When people sense real purpose, they don’t need to be pushed, pulled, or coerced! If you will help people find purpose, accountability is as natural as breathing.
- I love this definition of accountability from author Lauren Rosenfeld, “What I do truly matters. What others do truly matters to me.” Sometimes employees honestly do not see the impact of their work. They think of tasks as routine or insignificant – they are a part disconnected from the whole. Help people see how their work fits into the larger scheme of things.
- Challenge yourself to create the “want to.” Resist the temptation to rely on your ability to make people do things. Instead look for ways to build interest, curiosity, and community. Sell the value and benefit of what you are asking people to do.
- Get people involved in the solutions! Bring the problems and opportunities of your business to your employees. In the words of Zig Ziglar, “People act best on their own ideas.” (Put another way, people don’t argue with their own data.) If you want greater commitment, go for more involvement. When people are involved, they feel and behave like owners.
- Push decisions to the level most impacted whenever you can. This isn’t always possible, but when it is, there are incredible payoffs! When people are allowed to decide, they feel trusted; that’s a huge motivator. They have the opportunity to practice problem solving and critical thinking. When people are allowed to own the decision, they are more likely to own the action plan.
- Recognize and reward people who demonstrate personal accountability. Those are success stories. Find those stories and tell them!
- Finally, come to terms with the fact that some people will not embrace personal accountability. Perhaps those individuals are not a good fit for your team. That doesn’t mean they are bad; it means they can’t commit to the things your team values. Isolate those issues and deal with them appropriately.
Use these strategies to inspire authentic commitment. Rather than driving people to a result, draw people to a greater possibility.