Remove the Scarlet Letter A from Accountability

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Can you relate to that story? I know I can.

Accountability is a giant “should” that nearly every team feels guilt about. It’s the organizational version of our personal twinges: “I should work out more. I should spend less money.” These conversations are almost always accompanied by shoulder shrugs, winces, sighs. Leaders frequently express “we know we can and should do better” as they silently bear the scarlet letter A.

What makes this topic so cringe-worthy?

The Culprits

There are three main culprits that are usually at play when it comes to accountability.

  1. Lack of clarity on goals, commitments, and owners – like the characters in the opening story asked: Who is doing what? By when? What does success look like? This sounds so easy – and yet we know it doesn’t happen as often as it should. This leads to the second culprit.
  2. Lack of time and focus – for some teams, the speed at which they move makes documenting goals and commitments feel herculean. And even the teams that make good efforts to do so often lament that they don’t go back and revisit commitments. Looking back requires space, and it’s too easy for this space to get filled by continuing to plow ahead.
  3. Lack of practice – most people assume that accountability = hard conversation. It doesn’t have to necessarily (more on that below), but it might. Even the most experienced leaders can tend to avoid these due to a lack of experience with them.

Unstitching the Scarlet Letter

Without question, shifting the tone about accountability in an organization falls into the “simple but not easy”’ bucket. Some thoughts below about how to corral the culprits:

  1. Regarding clarity: Start small. There are numerous tools to help document accountability but getting clear can start without a system. Take the last 5 minutes of any team meeting to do a quick review: what decisions were made, what actions will be taken, by whom and when? This habit quickly highlights the conversations that got waylaid and ended without a decision or clear set of actions. (Note: make a log of these.)
  2. Regarding time and focus: I’ll pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. You do realize that you probably spend more time chasing things down (and more energy being frustrated and distracted) than if you carved out the time to address it directly out of the gate?
  3. Regarding practice: gut-check your assumption that accountability conversations have to be ugly. Yes, checking in with a peer or an employee about something that hasn’t gotten done can be hard when steps one and two aren’t in place and the conversation has been avoided. When some of those baby steps are in place, checking in becomes the norm.

Another key point on the assumptions we make about accountability: I often hear worry that checking in with people is bad or has to be harsh. (Pause: did that statement resonate with you?) It is possible to ask someone about a deliverable without being an ogre, feeling guilty, or shaming them. It takes practice, and it is possible. There are endless reasons why things don’t get done. Can you approach a conversation with curiosity and inquiry – even care and concern (!) – as to what the situation is?

These tips aren’t an end-all, be-all. Yet I’ve seen teams make real progress when instituting these baby steps. Our work exists for the sake of progress, and accountability is inherently part of that. Most people leave organizations where results don’t matter.

A Final Thought

Practicing accountability makes it possible to have some real conversations, to confirm to people that their work matters, and to model your own hits and misses. Pretty important leadership behaviors, wouldn’t you say?

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