Improving Workplace Accountability in 2022

Let’s say you had your career mapped out. You had plans for all the great things you would learn say, and do to achieve your goals in 2021, until something got in the way—OTHER PEOPLE!

As it turns out, working effectively with others is one of the most critical components of individual success. So, what happens when others don’t communicate clearly, keep their commitments, and pull their weight? It impacts the organisation, and it impacts YOU.

But when you try to address these problems, they often get worse. People ignore you, argue, gossip.  And when you don’t address them, well, they persist.

So how exactly do you address behavioural and performance gaps with peers, direct reports, and leaders without driving a wedge into the relationship, without risking a project or even your career? How do you hold others accountable?

Before we dive into how you can achieve team accountability in 2022, let’s look at the true meaning of workplace accountability.

What Is Accountability and Why Is It So Important?

Scour the Web and you’ll find innumerable articles that speak of cultural accountability—what it looks like, how important it is, and how to hire accountable people. “How to Build a Culture of Accountability,” “5 Keys to Promoting Accountability in Your Business,” and “Build a Culture of Accountability in 5 Steps” represent just a fleck of headlines on the matter.

Our recent survey demonstrates that unaccountability still persists in the workplace, despite the spotlight accountability has enjoyed for 50 years on the stage of organisational culture. Thus, while all organisations value accountability, expressing as much in handbooks and mission statements, achieving an accountability culture remains, for most, a fantasy. Awareness of concepts does not change behaviour.

“To be accountable means that we are willing to be responsible to another person for our behaviour and it implies a level of submission to another’s opinions and viewpoints.” –  Wayde Goodall.

Practising 200% Accountability

To create a culture with true accountability, where innovation, engagement, and adaptability prevail, there must be 200 per cent accountability. This means individuals must hold themselves accountable to cultural norms, expectations, and promises, but also hold others accountable, regardless of rank or position. This is true whether that culture is within a family home, a football team, a Fortune 500 company, or a federal agency. And here’s the kicker: individuals best hold others accountable when others actively hold them to account.

Bridging the Gap with Accountability

Accountability conversations often centre on addressing a behavioural gap: the gap between expectation and performance, between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. But people fear accountability conversations. We fear bad results. We fear retaliation, a blow-up, jeopardising a project or position, or calling into question people we respect. When faced with crucial moments, most of us tend to say nothing, which only perpetuates the problem.

Opportunities to hold accountability discussions occur daily—if not multiple times a day. These problems need to be addressed and addressed properly.

The following three skills will help you address poor performance or bad behaviour quickly and effectively: Master My Stories, Convey Positive Intent, and Describe the Gap.

1. Master My Stories

Holding others accountable isn’t about calling them out; it’s about supporting them socially.

When it comes to cases of broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behaviour, most of us tell ourselves one of two stories: the person with whom we have a grievance either doesn’t care or is incapable of meeting our expectations. Each story informs a feeling—usually one of offence or contempt—and then we respond poorly or not at all.

So how do you master your stories?

Start with ‘me’ first. Separate your stories from the facts and reflect on what you want from the conversation.

Your ability to effectively hold others accountable begins with your paradigm. Shift how you see matters of accountability, and you’ll shift how you discuss them.

Before Confronting someone ask yourself:

  • How have I contributed to this challenge?
  • What might the other person be facing that is contributing to this challenge?
  • Are there variables I’m not seeing?
  • How would I like to be approached if I were him/her?
  • What would a successful outcome from this conversation look like?

“If you are building a culture where honest expectations are communicated and peer accountability is the norm, then the group will address poor performance and attitudes.”

– Henry Cloud

Resist the urge to tell yourself stories about the other’s behaviour—that they don’t care or they’re incapable—and banish any desires to reprove him or her. Approach the conversation as one offering social support and see what happens. Master your stories and you’ll broaden your influence.

2. Convey Positive Intent

People don’t get defensive because of what you’re saying, they get defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. So state your positive intentions immediately. Avoid offering insincere compliments or flattery, such as “You’re great” or “We sure do love having you here,” and don’t skirt the topic you want to address. Be frank and sincere.

Here’s how: establish Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect.

  • Mutual Purpose: You share a common understanding of what is important to the other person. You care about their problems, goals, struggles, and successes.
  • Mutual Respect: You care and have respect for them.

When holding an accountability discussion, begin by conveying your positive intent. You might try:

“I know this is important to you and I want you to know I care about it as well…”

“I’d like to talk about (fill in the blank here), and my intent is to understand this from all sides, so…”

You can even use these approaches to recover a conversation, when others become defensive or start to shut down:

“My intent is not to blame anyone. I want to provide support, which is why I was asking questions about the project status…”

When you frame your message with positive intent, you do two things: you reduce the potential for misunderstanding, and you set yourself a guidepost by which to align your words and actions. Make it explicit that you support and respect the person, and you’ll get off to a much better start.

3. Describe the Gap

When holding others accountable, most of us lead with our feelings, assumptions, and ugly conclusions. This quickly puts the other person on the defensive. But if you’ve mastered your stories and conveyed positive intent, you should get off to a good start with a receptive teammate. Now it’s time to describe the gap—to point out the discrepancy between expectation and performance. How you do so will make all the difference in whether the conversation continues effectively.

So stick with the FACTS.

Facts are things you can see, hear, observe, and measure. When you stick to the facts, your stories, assumptions, and interpretations of the behaviour in question stay out of the picture. Consequently, any sense of accusation or shaming stays out of the picture, too.

How to Stick to the Facts?

  • Stay External: Describe what’s happening outside your head, not your conclusions or feelings going on inside.
  • Explain what, not why: Facts tell us what’s going on; conclusions tell us why you think it’s important.
  • Gather Facts: Don’t rely on hearsay conclusions. Do your homework and gather the facts before holding an accountability discussion.
  • Avoid “hot” words: Be sure to avoid emotionally loaded descriptions. (“You’re using a hostile tone of voice,” or “You carelessly left out three slides.”) When you share a possibly inflammatory story, you’re betting that the person will understand the behaviour you’re trying to address and won’t become defensive. That’s a bad bet. Describe the observable details of the behavioural gap. Cut out the guesswork.

 Build Your Workplace Accountability Culture Today

Organisations, teams, and relationships are healthy to the degree that they identify and discuss problems quickly, and we all want to belong to and contribute to healthy relationships and organisations. Yet most of us hesitate to speak up from a desire to preserve relationships and social support. And in doing so, we undermine both.

This is a paradox, for in speaking up, we foster social ties and relationships. When people are held accountable, they know they are valued. And when people feel valued, they contribute, engage, and speak up themselves. The behaviour builds on itself. The vital factor is in how we speak up. The skills and insights we’ve outlined here come from the bestselling book Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behaviour. But the skills don’t stop here. Holding accountability discussions is only half the battle. What you do post-conversation matters as much as, or more than, what you do leading up to those Crucial Conversations. Further skills, insights, case studies, and exercises are outlined in the book and training course of the same name.

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