How do I get them to be accountable?

This is such an important question. What gets my attention is everything I hear simmering inside it:

  • Hope, and commitment: This future I’ve outlined, I really, really want it to happen.
  • Interdependence: Getting to success is bigger than just me – it’s going to take you, too. 
  • Concern, even fear: If you don’t do your part, then I’ll have to do something about that. It will be uncomfortable, and probably disrupt our relationship. And I’ll be the bad guy.

What I also see inside this question is a myth that’s threaded its way into how we (at least we here in the West) conceive of life, and of work. The myth is this: if I use the right technique or the perfect words, I will be able to get them to do what it is I need them to do. I can control the situation to get what I need.

Well. There’s good news, and there’s bad news.

Where does accountability live?

Three weeks ago, I got word that my uncle was in the hospital. I wrote, “Call aunt,” on a sticky note on my desk. It was a very busy day. The next day I was out of the door early for a client workshop, and the next. Then it was Saturday, and my partner asked, “What did you learn when you talked with your aunt?” I didn’t have an answer. At brunch on Sunday, my brother-in-law asked, “How’s your uncle?” I didn’t know.

My uncle has been on disability, housebound, for decades. My aunt is a hoarder. She can find delight in anything, and gives herself a five-minute limit whenever she goes in a thrift store. Before she retired to spend more time with my uncle – “he doesn’t have many years left,” she explained – she worked two jobs. Her favorite was the zoo, where she was the woman selling the dixie cups of kibbles you buy if you want to feed the giraffes. Her other hours she spent as a hydration aid in a nursing home Alzheimer’s unit. She walked the halls for eight to ten hours handing out more dixie cups filled with Sunny Delight orange drink, and listening to resident’s stories. I’ve visited my aunt and uncle’s packed-to-the-roof house every couple of years for a few hours. Our relationships are not close, but caring. I have never quite been able to tell whether they are developmentally disabled, or savants, or both. I guess it doesn’t matter. They know more about current events and politics – including the local politics where I live, halfway across the country – than I ever will. My uncle found a typo in my last book after six readers, an editor, and a proofreader missed it. They remember details about my life with jaw-dropping exactness.

Was I clear about what I should do? Yes. Did I truly want to call? Again, yes. I value being a supportive presence for family, and I believe in the power of compassionate conversation. I had all the resources I needed – phone, number, and let’s be real, time. The truth was that the thought of talking to my aunt on the phone made me a bit uncomfortable, a vague sort of anxious. I imagined being on the phone for a while, then needing to go but not being able to find a graceful end. I fantasized that she might talk about financial pressures, and I’d feel guilty about not doing anything. Way down deep, I imagined sitting there and just not knowing what I could say that would make a difference.

Accountability is an inside job

You might be thinking, this is ridiculous – for heaven’s sake, woman, pick up that phone! I can understand that. I’m tempted to say it myself. But we each have our own accountability journeys, and I’m just being honest with you. This is one of mine.

Here’s my point: Accountability is an inside job. It’s a personal journey, a look-in-the-mirror conversation you have first and foremost with yourself. I like this definition from Roger Connors, Craig Hickman and Tom Smith, authors of The Oz Principle: “A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results – to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.” And sometimes the personal choices is more complicated than others, or gets muddied by dynamics deeper than you can see.

So how can you “get them” to be accountable? The big buzz wrecker is that you can’t. Everyone has to do it for themselves.

Being an accountability gardener

But what you can – and should – do as a leader is to be energetic and fearless about cultivating an environment of accountability. This starts with a look in the mirror. What am I doing to cultivate the accountability I long for? Perhaps more importantly, what am I not doing? A leader who has this as one of her superpowers describes her approach this way:

  • Involve them in setting the goals you’re hoping they’ll choose to be accountable for, as much as you can. Remember to include a conversation about the bigger why – yours, and theirs.
  • Talk together about what accountability looks like. What would we see each other doing? What kinds of behaviors, if we saw them, would tell us accountability is missing?
  • Take the conversation another step: When we see these two kinds of behaviors, how do we want to respond? What do we want to say to each other?
  • Day to day, when you as the leader see behaviors that look like personal accountability, let them know. And importantly, when you see behaviors that look like lack of personal accountability, point that out. Remember: as leaders, we get what we tolerate. (For those of you familiar with the experience wheel, this is a great place to use it. You may discover they are unclear about the expectations, see their own behavior differently than you do, or have good intentions but fear or discomfort are getting in the way… so be prepared to coach and support. )
  • Make sure the goal-setting and accountability conversations aren’t a one-hit wonder. Nobody gets anything new and important consistently right without practice. It’s your job to lead check-ins: Where are we on our goals, and why? What’s working well? What’s getting in the way? What are the best actions we could each take to move things forward? Have this conversation in a specific way versus a general way, inviting team  members to discuss what’s working well and what’s getting in the way for them, personally. This sets an expectation of personal accountability and surfaces unforeseen obstacles so team members can learn and adapt together.

So much groundwork and preparation is involved, long before any defining moments crop up. I think of you as a courageous gardener, and what you’re doing as cultivating a culture of accountability. You are creating the conditions that up the likelihood your team members will be able to see, own, solve and do what it takes to be personally accountable.

A note about natural consequences

If you’ve had as many individual conversations as you think is reasonable for someone’s role, level of responsibility and compensation, and you don’t see evidence that they are taking personal accountability, this is the time to have a courageous, look-in-the-mirror, personal accountability conversation with yourself: What are the natural consequences here, for someone with this role, level of responsibility and salary? What support do I need to enact them? And take it from there. (Our friends at Crucial Conversations have some nice ideas about this here.) Remember that NOT enacting natural consequences works against the culture of accountability you want to create. And everyone will see it.

What comes next?

Five days ago, I called my aunt. I think it meant a lot – to both of us. Most parts of our conversation felt good, and a few felt awkward. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. I know I’ll do it again.

What’s become clearer to me from carrying this question around with me for a few days is that there’s no shortage of opportunities for me to take personal accountability – including in exactly those places I really wish others would.

I’m curious: What’s becoming clearer to you? What will you try?

4 thoughts on “How do I get them to be accountable?

  1. Great piece and a helpful reminder to start by looking inward, whenever exploring changes in behavior and approach. Plus – like it or not – family relationships seem to be the uber-laboratory for all of these skills!

    • The uber-laboratory… you said it! There’s a graduate program in organizational leadership, based in Seattle, that begins with a family systems course. Students have to identify a change they want to make in how they engage within their family system, and take it on, before they can move farther in the program. The logic: If you can’t do it there, you’ll just keep repeating the same dynamic over and over again in your work relationships. Provocative! Thanks for your input.

  2. I really thought it was a powerful statement you made:”You may discover they are unclear about the expectations, see their own behavior differently than you do, or have good intentions but fear or discomfort are getting in the way… so be prepared to coach and support. ” Accountability is a perspective that the leader has to mold and foster in order to have expectations around it…It is so easy to forget that the leader is equally responsible.

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