The topic of “accountability” anchors almost every leadership discussion I witness these days. While I hear the word accountability ad nauseam, what I see are leaders who lack the intestinal fortitude to follow through on the actions that create it.
Here are the things you’re doing that are eroding accountability.
The executive team has asked you to assign one of your team members to lead a company-wide strategic initiative. The job is to take the executive team’s cursory overview and turn it into a full-fledged business case. You select your best person, give him a few instructions and send him on his way.
Two weeks later, three days before the deadline, you receive his draft and much to your horror, find it’s completely lacking. You clear your calendar and work feverishly night and day to get it into shape so it can go in front of the executive team.
You have just committed the first deadly sin of creating accountability; you took control. Your decision to take over might have been driven by your perfectionism, by fear of judgment by your superiors, or just a discomfort or lack of skill in providing constructive feedback so the employee could fix the document himself. Regardless of the reason, what you just said loudly and clearly is: “I am accountable, you are not!” Woops.
Returning to our example, consider another way you might react when your direct report brings you the draft business case. A haggard and bleary-eyed team member hands you her draft and shares the process she used to get to this point. She spoke with 13 different stakeholders, consulted analysts’ reports, and built a massive spreadsheet to examine the ROI implications of different scenarios. You smile and nod and “ooh” and “aah” at her efforts.
Unfortunately, you’re so busy being impressed by how much work she did that you don’t notice that she missed the point. Although she did twice as much work as required, she looked at everything from the status quo perspective and failed to consider using a new business model.
You’ve committed the second deadly sin of creating accountability; you focused on the effort and ignored the outcome. Your decision to focus on the process rather than the result could have been based on a lack of clarity about what success was supposed to look like, or empathy because of the difficulty of the task, or discomfort in providing constructive feedback. Whatever the reason for it, what you just said loudly and clearly is: “I know that doesn’t work, but you keep at it!”
Now imagine that you are aware of the shortcomings of the work and you choose to provide feedback. That feedback rambles around and around, never really coming to a point. Each piece of constructive feedback is well-disguised by multiple positive statements. You leave the person feeling pretty good about his work with only a minor footnote about trivial things that could be done differently next time.
You have committed the third deadly sin of creating accountability; you sugar-coated the feedback and failed to create the lasting impression that comes from having a bad taste in your mouth. Your decision to (as Mary Poppins would put it) “help the medicine go down” was probably tied up in your discomfort or lack of skill in giving constructive feedback. What you just said is “You didn’t do a good job, but I like you anyway.”
Are you sensing a theme here…if you aren’t comfortable with consequences, you WILL NOT create accountability.
In my next post, I’ll stop ranting and share the productive things you can do to increase accountability.