Accountability Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

“How do I hold someone accountable?” A common question with a common misunderstanding of the answer.

“Accountable for what?” is my typical response.

“For failing. For bad performance. For something bad!”

Next question from me, “How far into the project are you? How long have they been failing?”

The typical responses, “The project is over. They have been failing for the better part of the year.” If these are your answers, you’ve just made accountability a zero-sum game. “You failed and now I have to do (fill in the blank for the awful outcome.) “

Let’s cut to the chase. If, as a leader, you’re asking how to hold someone accountable for bad performance after the fact, guess what? YOU failed. Time to figure out how to hold yourself accountable.

Real accountability begins immediately…with the leader setting the stage. As the leader, have you presented guidelines for behaviors and actions that you want your employees to work with-in? Have you presented the overall situation that is necessitating action or initiation of a project? Or, are you just giving orders in a bubble with no context? Have you outlined the specific goal of the project or are you just assuming everyone should know that already? Have specific actions that need to be taken to achieve the goal been identified? Have you identified who is in charge of each action, and how progress will be tracked and communicated? Have you planned contingencies in case things go wrong (which they will!). If you have not accounted for these things you have no business asking how to hold someone accountable after they fail because you, the leader, have essentially left the success or failure of the project to the flip of a coin.

If you have done these things, guess what? You have a built-in accountability system where you can make small course corrections along the way. Here is a simple example:

Leader: The plan says you are responsible for contacting 4 potential sub-contractors for bids. The plan also says you’ll have the bids by today. Is this action complete?

Employee: Uh, no.

Leader: OK, any particular reason why not?

Employee: [Insert all forms of excuses, deflection, and blame as to why the employee did not complete the task]

Leader: Ok, but in the “actions” section of the plan we decided you are responsible for this. We also decided together that the task was to be completed today. The team met 10 days ago and we all agreed to this plan and everyone’s responsibilities. We also agreed we would communicate any potential problems immediately. Was there something you were not clear on?

Employee: No, I understood.

Leader: Ok, let’s set a new date of completion for 10 days from today. This will put us a little behind schedule, but it’s nothing we can’t make up for. Is that reasonable?

Employee: Yes

Congratulations! You just held someone accountable! And, you did it early with a small course correction that will not even register as a blip on the screen in the big picture. Early corrections based upon a solid, clear plan are typically all you need to hold people accountable. If the behavior continues you’ll be able to see it early and make the necessary adjustments before it becomes a liability; perhaps getting the employee additional support or finding someone more suitable for the job.

Either way, the leader sets the stage for accountability BEFORE the project begins, not AFTER It’s failed.

Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Ice Cold Leader provides executive coachingkeynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.

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