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It’s Time For A New ERA Of Accountability

(June 26, 2023 Newsletter)

It’s time to acknowledge that the phrase “Hold people accountable” has become a catch-all and should be untangled, for everyone’s sanity.

What’s happening: Most of my clients have mentioned to me that “holding people accountable” is a core responsibility with which they struggle, but the examples they offer range widely.

Last week alone, I heard the following examples:

  • The organization’s ability to accomplish its mission and report regularly and transparently to our board.

  • Employees across teams delivering pieces of projects to each other on time.

  • Deflecting blame onto others or refusing to take responsibility when something isn’t ready on time or delivered at a high enough quality.

  • Keeping one’s own team on track for their deadlines.

Why it matters: When supervisors fold all of the above into one term, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what is challenging them – and therefore, what solutions they should employ.

  • More so, when a management team doesn’t agree on the definition, it can cause confusion, chaos, and conflict as they start to tackle disparate symptoms without coordination.

So, let’s define our terminology:

  • Merriam-Webster defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions.”

  • Brené Brown defines it as “You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.”

  • There’s even an entire book called Crucial Accountability whose subtitle is “Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior.”

Getting more specific: Let’s separate out the following into ERA:

  1. Before: Setting expectations. Accountability is impacted by…

  • Not defining success clearly.

  • Not laying out a detailed-enough roadmap.

  • People agreeing to the plan while knowing that the timeline is inaccurate or resources are inadequate.

  1. During: Encouraging reliability, by means of project management, tracking progress, and getting regular status updates. Accountability is impacted by…

  • Letting small errors or missteps slide instead of addressing them early.

  • Lack of oversight over the involved parties.

  • Confusion over roles and responsibilities, leading to gaps or double work.

  1. After: Accountability, sometimes celebrating a successful project, but the term is really meant for taking responsibility for what didn’t go according to plan. Accountability is impacted by…

  • Not convening a debrief to review the process from top to bottom and capture learnings for next time

  • Blaming others for what didn’t go well

  • Justifying aspects that were mishandled

In a perfect world, if everyone held themselves accountable – meaning that they owned their mistakes, apologized, and made amends – people would be a lot less concerned about holding others accountable. But alas, the role of manager is there for a reason.

  • Reply and tell me: do you think it’s harder to admit your own mistakes or convince someone else to own their mistakes?

There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll pause for now. Let me know if you want me to keep writing about this over the summer – and if so, which of the above (or other) challenges you the most when you use the phrase “holding people accountable.”


The Coaching Corner

One small step for accountability…

Next time a direct report comes to complain to you about someone else not doing their part, try the following:

  1. Validate the emotions underlying what you’re hearing, with some version of “I can tell that you’re really frustrated.”

  2. Acknowledge that you want to help them resolve it – “We’ll get to the bottom of this”

  3. But first… help them reflect on how they’re contributing to the conflict “but before we talk about the other person, why don’t you tell me what part of this you can own.”

They may deflect and bring it back to the other person – they’re the “real” problem. Stick with a “yes and” approach… “I’m not saying they don’t have a part, but I just want to know what yours is too.”

Use your own words and let me know how it goes.


This week's rabbit hole was on Systems Thinking. Here are some resources I enjoyed:

Listen to the episode of “A Meditation Scientist Changes of My Mind” on “A Slight Change of Plans” with Maya Shankar.


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