When I discuss with team leaders, they regularly mention that their best employees are the ones with a high level of accountability.
While I agree this is definitely a trait successful and high achievers display, I also hear complaints from some managers about their colleagues who don’t show this kind of ownership.
Maybe the worst comment was: “some people aren’t just wired for this”, meaning that you are either accountable or you aren’t.
To me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. We are not fixed quantities – we can grow, we can change.
While, ultimately, this is up to the individual, managers also have a role to play. They have to create a suitable environment for one to take ownership.
So, when managers complain about a lack of accountability, I like to challenge them and ask if this is not due to a leadership deficiency. Namely, did they fulfil the conditions to encourage and nurture accountability?
When we ask for accountability, we have to give first.
We have to give three elements: expectations, agency and purpose, which respectively answer the questions: what, how and why.
If managers don’t provide these pillars of accountability but still vehemently ask for it, they are setting their whole team up for failure.
Most often, the expectations are defined. We have targets, objectives, and goals to achieve. It gives us clarity about what to do.
Companies also develop mission statements, their “raison d’etre”, explaining why they do what they do – like Harley Davidson making motorcycles to provide a feeling of freedom and liberty to their customers. It gives purpose, and if it aligns with personal values, it will also drive engagement and accountability up.
But the part which is frequently misunderstood is the “how”, namely giving employees agency.
To better grasp this concept, we should get back to the definition of accountability, which is the willingness to accept the consequences of your choices, actions and behaviours.
Asking for accountability without giving agency is unsustainable as it basically requires someone to take ownership of decisions made for them.
It’s like driving your car, but your passenger is deciding which direction to take. And if you end up being late, you are the one responsible. Under these conditions, it is easy to start blaming something like “but you told me to take the next left!” or “I should not have listened to you”. This builds frustration, resentment and obviously impacts performance.
Managers often object and tell me that their employees can make their own decisions and work autonomously. Although that’s theoretically true, it is generally not the case in practice.
Giving agency means empowering the person to decide and do things on their own to achieve a particular result. And this is a balancing act of leadership.
On the one hand, if there are too many constraints (which are often linked with unrealistic short-term expectations) without offering adequate resources, this is simply coercion. Implicitly, the decisions are already made.
It’s like working on a project where all parameters are set in stone. Deadlines, deliverables, technologies to use, number of staff, budget and so forth – everything is fixed. There is nothing to work with and your decisions are forced from the onset.
On the other hand, giving agency can be mistaken for abandonment. It’s not coercion but desertion when managers hide behind the excuse of employees’ autonomy to avoid providing guidance and feedback, failing to help them in their decision-making process.
To find a good balance and give agency to others, we can ask ourselves two questions.
First, are we providing the right inputs?
Like setting clear expectations and discussing them with our colleagues to ensure they are realistic, don’t corner them and have adequate resources to fulfil them.
Second, are we focusing too much on the outcomes to the detriment of the process?
If our team members are working remotely, left to their own devices, it is tempting to only evaluate them based on their results without acknowledging their situation and growth.
Connecting regularly, actively listening and providing feedback allow us to consistently help one’s tweaking their decision processes and, over time, ensure successful outcomes.
I hope you enjoyed this newsletter and thank you for reading it!
To your success,
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