“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
For most of my life I’ve been mistaken for being sweet. Nice. Kind.
A high school friend lovingly and ironically nicknamed me “Attila the Hanna” after the famous Hun.
And while I tease my children that I am actually the meanest mom in the world when I make them do something they don’t want to do, like most of us, the truth is that I’m really somewhere in between cotton candy and a bed of nails.
A common belief about accountability
I’m bringing this up because lately I’ve been noticing some common beliefs about accountability, specifically around holding others accountable.
Those beliefs are:
- If we hold others accountable, we aren’t being nice.
- If we tell others what we want, they might not like us.
- Other people might be uncomfortable if we point out gaps in performance.
The problem is, if we don’t tell people what we want from them, it’s harder for them to know what we want. We can’t really expect people to meet unspoken expectations, or to read our minds.
And when we assume that people should know something, but they fail to meet our expectations, we set everyone up for confusion, frustration and misunderstandings.
Which actually isn’t very kind. Or nice.
Setting clear expectations
We can prevent a lot of problems down the line when we are clear up front about our task/relationship expectations and standards, with our colleagues, bosses and employees, and check in with those standards and agreements regularly.
Asking everyone involved questions like “What does success look like for this project?” and “What type of working atmosphere or culture do we want?” can help build a shared vision and understanding of the behaviors and outcomes everyone expects, so it’s clear at the outset.
This can also include being clear about time expectations, and what ‘done’ means, such as: “When will you do ____, and how will we both know it’s done?”, as well as co-creating plans for what happens if the deadlines are missed or expectations not met. What will you both do if you hit a bump in the road?
The difference between criticism and being critical
Holding accountability includes providing critical feedback as well.
It’s easy to confuse the skill of giving critical feedback with criticism: the very words we use to describe these two actions sound and read similarly. However, there is an important difference between the two.
Providing critical feedback points observable behaviors and their impact: “When you do _____ (behavior), then this happens (pointing to the impact of the behavior).”
Criticism instead attacks the person, versus focusing on their behavior: “You are….”, or “You always….”. Criticism usually feels like blame, and will often provoke defensiveness in the person on the receiving end.
It’s perfectly reasonable – and often quite helpful – to provide critical feedback to others on their behavior, as part of accountability, as long as it’s not accompanied by criticism.
How to set and hold accountability
- Be clear about your task and relationship standards, expectations, needs, and deadlines, as well as those of your co-workers.
- Together, establish how accountability will be held: when will the work be done, and how will you know it’s complete.
- Provide behaviorally-focused critical feedback instead of criticism if there is a gap in performance.
Being clear about needs at the outset, co-designing the desired results, and being willing to talk about gaps, will not only help prevent problems, but go a long way to creating a better result.
And more than just being nice, you’ll be more effective.
In the Comments, I’d love to hear from you: What helps you hold accountability? Where do you struggle with it?
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