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3 Ways to Improve Accountability to Drive Performance

Accountability. Buzzword or standard? Given the term accountability is used by every job seeker, manager, business leader, and executive at every opportunity that presents itself, one must wonder if there is really a substance behind the word. Saying things like “I hold myself and my team accountable”,  “We’re going to be more accountable” and my personal favorite, "We need more accountability"  are all like nodding your head in agreement when someone is telling you something.  Nodding your head implies you're in agreement or familiar with what is being said, but in reality you're just going through the motions of a conditioned response.

In today's business environment, using the term accountability has become a conditioned response.

Why?  The word accountability appears in over 100M SERP results on Google.  It is among every "top ways list of being a better manager/leader."  It is preached to be the golden nugget to get a manager to the so-called promise land of upper-level leadership. 

The problem isn't with the word itself, the problem is with how people throw it around with no understanding of what it means or with any substance behind it.  OK, I get it, accountability is important to you, so what's next?  If it's so important, what are you going to do with it?

What I find interesting when working with groups is that there is a correlation between business leaders using the term accountability and performance.  As performance goes down, the use of accountability goes up.  Back to the statement above - accountability is a conditioned response to decreasing performance.  If accountability is so important, why are they waiting for performance to drop before using it?

You typically don't see high performing teams talking about using accountability, do you?  It's because it's just what they do.  It's built into their performance design; without it the performance wouldn't stand.  For some, accountability is a given, for others it's a loosely used word for when it's convenient.

If you or your business group is using the term loosely, fear not.  The following are three ways to improve the use of accountability within your business to drive better performance.

First, understand it and TEACH it.  I was having coffee with a human resources executive not long ago and he told me he hated the term "accountability" because to him, there was a negative connotation associated with it due to it being used incorrectly.  When used incorrectly, it is a scary word that makes people nervous and to a certain degree, distracts people from focusing on what matters.  He is 100% right and I couldn't agree more.  

Business leaders often use the term incorrectly and within this incorrect context, the word accountability can be perceived negatively.  Unfortunately, when used incorrectly, accountability can be the foundation for a fear-based leadership style.  

They key to proper use of accountability is to understand it.  To be accountable means to be able to justify.  Simply put, you need to be able to speak to situations and matters.  You need to be able to answer questions.  Being accountable is your ability to speak to why you (or your business) did or didn't do the things that you did or didn't do.

So now that you know what the term means, you must teach it.  If one person uses it incorrectly, others my perceive that as the correct way to use the term.  Next thing you know, you have a whole business using the term accountability incorrectly.

When I ask my clients what accountability looks like in their firm, most commonly I hear:  "We could be better but overall I think we are average at holding our people accountable."  Oh yeah, what does that really mean?  When I dig deeper, and ask "What does holding your people accountable look like?", I typically get a response like "we follow up to make sure people are doing what they are supposed to be doing."  To many, this sounds right, but it's completely wrong! 

Accountability is about being able to speak to situations and matters.  If you're having to chase your team or follow-up to get answers, you're not using accountability correctly.  If you're not using it correctly, odds are your team isn't either.  By now your 1/3 the way there to using it correctly.  You now know being accountable means being able to speak to situations and matters.

Second, treat accountability as a forethought, not an afterthought.  Many times, accountability enters the equation when performance is dropping.  This is why it's perceived negatively; accountability is incorrectly used as a guise for coaching and counseling.  "My business unit's performance is dropping and all of a sudden my supervisor wants to know how I'm holding my team accountable."  When it rains, it pours.  Low performance brings on the accountability rains from the ignorant leaders.  Accountability is often incorrectly associated with documented corrective action forms. 

Accountability needs to be step 1 in the performance equation.  Referencing the question above, when I ask my clients what accountability looks like in their firm, the successful businesses I work with respond with "We have routine strategy meetings where business unit leaders discuss specifics on strategy and tactics at the operational level to achieve the objectives we need them to achieve.  Business unit leaders come out of these meetings being able to speak to the step by step path they plan on taking to achieve their outcome."

How often do you meet with your business unit leaders to discuss strategy?  Does the strategy get properly vetted?  Do you have the right people included in the conversation.  Do you have contingency plans or plan B's for when you experience unexpected turns.

Sports coaches are good example of high level accountability.  Immediately following games, professional coaches have to answer on everything they did during the game.  How many times do you hear "At the end of the 3rd quarter when we were down 20 we called a timeout and held our people accountable."  Never.  You typically hear responses similar to "We knew coming in that we had to be ready for this, so we knew we wanted to do that."

Accountability isn't about being right.  Accountability is about being able to speak to why you did did what you did (or didn't do).  In every game there is a winning coach and a losing coach.  The losing coach speaks to why his/her decisions or the decisions of the team didn't lead to desired outcome.  Losing coaches with a high degree of accountability will say things like "we went in wanting to do this, but as it turns out, it didn't work like we expected it to.  We tried to make an adjustment but the other team got ahead to far to quick and we couldn't catch up."  

With accountability as a forethought, it's up to leadership (at every level) to ensure routine strategy meetings are taking place.  Upper-level leaders need to teach and grow their direct reports' ability to lead strategy meetings.  If strategy discussions aren't happening on the front line, that points back to the top line.

Third, make sure outcomes are documented and are precursors for future strategical and tactical decisions.  A highly accountable business is obsessed with knowing their results.  They document what works and what doesn't work.  They work to reduce mistakes and waste.  They focus on improvement and growth. 

Accountability isn't about being right; the most accountable leaders aren't always right.  Being right and being accountable are two completely different things but being accountable will lead to the right decision and predictable results.

Accountability can be whatever you make it to be within your firm.  Unfortunately for most, and to the displeasure of my HR executive friend, accountability is the foundation for fear-based leadership styles.  Most businesses with fear-based leadership don't even realize they have a fear-based culture.  Ignorance is bliss.

Companies that harness the power of accountability have engaged, productive team members who enjoy winning and being on the top.  Their winning attitude is a product of a high degree level of accountability that is understood, taught, and used by all levels of leadership.

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