“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?
Loved this post?
Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to specific friends via email.
And leave your email at the top or bottom of this page to be first to hear about more articles like this.
Photo credit: DepositPhotos
Anastacia Brice says
I love this post!
And I have a question for you.
In my experience, there can be no accountability without authority.
Mom’s (dealing with kids), or bosses (dealing with employees) have authority and hold sway. But co-workers? Generally not–unless it’s the ultimate sway involved in “telling on” someone (to the boss who holds sway) for not keeping his word.
And still, no one likes to be a tattle-tale (talk about the ultimate in not-niceness!).
So how do you suggest colleagues with no real authority deal with creating accountability–especially with other team members who aren’t intrinsically motivated?
Hanna Cooper says
Anastacia, thanks for commenting and great question!
I see this dynamic a lot in teams of all sizes, from two to 22: we do expect and wait for the hammer, “mom” or the authority to hold sway.
But I think the healthiest teams are ones that own their interdependence and find ways to be accountable to each other.
Problems need to be solved at the level at which they were created: co-workers need to try to work it out first before going to the boss; kids have to try too before running to Mom. It’s exhausting and a poor use of time for the boss (or Mom) otherwise. So, managers and parents have to hold that line as well.
It takes time and energy to invest in the relationship and the ever evolving process of designing and redesigning how we work together – which is why many of us don’t bother.
But it’s a skill that can be developed . My experience is that if we invest in these conversations up front, and are also willing to talk with each other first (before going upstairs to the authority figures) about our disappointments, we can get more done, quicker, with less drama.
I’m so grateful for your comment and your question! Let me know what you think!
Anastacia Brice says
Sorry for my delayed response! Out here in sabbatical land, time moves differently! 😉
Thank you for sharing more of what you’ve seen. I agree about it being something that can be learned, *and* just haven’t seen too many teams comprised of people with sufficient emotional and relational maturity to have this work well. That’s one reason I think all organizations should have internal coaches (probably not employed by the organizations so they don’t feel at all conflicted at any point and can offer their best to all the people who come to them for support), who hold no sway, *and* are the helpers when problems arise in whatever way(s) they do. Having and impartial person who is committed to enhancing a healthy culture, and standing for that as well as the company’s vision for their workplace and work environment would go a long way to supporting the brilliance you shared.
Back to you… 😀
Have a love-filled Thanksgiving, Hanna!
Hanna Cooper says
I’d agree, A, that having the emotional and relationship intelligence to do so is critical… and often we have to start where we are. And, what you describe in terms of working with teams & individuals is exactly what I do, so of course I am biased that that is awesome and the way to go!
Thanks for chiming in with your experiences – and hope that both your Thanksgiving and sabbatical are going great! (You can see that I am delayed even without one!)
Great to be in dialog with you!
Hanna, thanks for re-publishing this. I missed it the first time, and now it’s very timely. I will try the three steps this week !
Hanna Cooper says
Thanks, Steph -and let me know how it goes!