Years ago I came up with a phrase to help people respond constructively when they run into trouble dealing with their coworkers:
Always treat people as the source of the solution,
not the cause of the problem.
That maxim has profound implications for employee engagement – and how people show up when they relate to customers. I often encourage clients to write it on a post-it note and stick on their computer or their desk or anywhere else in plain view every day.
Beyond Accountability’s Bad Rap
Of course, seeing the words all the time is one thing. Applying the concept competently and consistently is quite another. One of the obstacles to embracing it fully is a misguided notion about what constitutes effective accountability. Research shows that about 80% of employees view accountability as a form of punishment for bad behavior or poor performance. Little wonder it’s so challenging to make it a positive and widely applied practice in the workplace.
Here’s another obstacle. Rigid disciplinarians often think treating people as the source of the solution for failures and foibles is just a way to mollycoddle a “problem child” who really oughta’ get a good lickin’. If there’s any place at all for that that kind of discipline, it should be reserved for bullies who use accountability as a club. Truth is, the vast majority of employees really want to do a good job, and instead of raising fear, accountability should be grounded in a systematic, constructive mechanism to support people in delivering on their intentions and agreements.
6 Elements of “People-Friendly” Accountability
Here are some guidelines for designing an accountability mechanism that people will embrace:
- Clear and credible expectations for both actions and outcomes from the outset. If the goal line is fuzzy or it seems unattainable, the entire accountability process is fatally flawed and almost surely doomed to failure.
- Systematic ongoing tracking of outcomes and core drivers. Without consistent, reliable data and information, performance evaluation often comes down to interpretation and guesswork.
- Regular check points and milestones to assess completion and quality of actions and outcomes. If you don’t keep a constant eye on how you’re doing and how well you’re doing it, you can stray off course in a heartbeat.
- Automated alerts can help remind people of deadlines without needing a supervisor to look over their shoulder and make sure tasks are getting completed.- Having peer-level “accountability partners” can provide nonthreatening encouragement and support for staying on task.
- Alignment on required adjustments. If you find you’re off the mark, recalibrate plans or actions and set new agreements.
- Review of actions and outcomes following agreed upon adjustments. Check again. Don’t assume adjustments will be made as planned or produce the desired results.
- Informal “well-being” checks. Looking in on people periodically to see how they’re doing is an opportunity to reinforce good progress and clear away obstacles that may be getting in the way.
Consider the Consequences
Realistically, even the most constructive approach to accountability occasionally requires some form of disciplinary action. Perhaps surprisingly, that’s when you need to apply the “source of the solution” principle most of all. What? You mean it’s still not time to take ‘em out to the woodshed? It all depends on your main goal.
If what you want is highly developed, responsible employees, consider what normally happens when you treat people as the cause of the problem rather than the source of the solution:
- They get defensive, and very few people do their best work when they’re feeling vulnerable and self-protective.
- It weakens their sense of empowerment in taking action and ownership for “making things right.”
- It sends a chilling signal to other employees that mistakes and missteps are not tolerated, which often stifles initiative, creativity and innovation.
Now, if your main goal is to satisfy your appetite for reckoning, and you still believe that fear is the best motivator, then by all means go ahead and take a hard-nosed approach to accountability. Be sure to let me know how that works for you in the long run.
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