It is true that some leaders micro-manage and are very controlling. But the opposite is also true and probably more common. This is where leaders do little to no direct report management and assume that because they hire mature capable people they will handle things capably and appropriately. But the need for order and organization will never go away. It is necessary for providing clarity at every level of the organization. The nature of how people are managed will certainly vary depending on a person’s role and level of maturity, but managing them is never optional, and the consequences of neglecting it are always serious.
Leaders who lead well want to stay involved in a way that encourages their teams to stay on task, address potential problems before they get out of hand, and provide the team with a level of confidence that they are headed in the right general direction. The challenge is staying in that place without over control and without allowing my level of interest, energy, or curiosity to determine how involved I am.
How do you learn to trust people and help them step up to the leadership that benefits everyone? Well, to be accountable means to provide an account of what’s happening in a particular area. To hold accountable means to ask questions about what’s happening in a particular area. The person holding someone accountable will ask tough questions and the accountable person is able to answer those tough questions, because they know exactly what’s going on.
In his book Good Authority, Management Coach Jonathan Raymond outlines five different levels of accountability that can be used, depending on the severity of the issue at hand:
1. The Mention: Short and immediate feedback where you say what you see and check in early on to make sure everything’s all right.
“Hey I noticed [a concrete observation about their work]… is everything okay?”
2. The Invitation: An informal chat, usually in private, during which you help someone build more awareness around a particular issue.
“I’ve mentioned [concrete behaviors] to you a few times now… what’s the pattern here?”
3. The Conversation: The “we need to talk” meeting, where you place some urgency around the issue and the importance of dealing with it.
“[Concrete observations/behaviors] are impacting the team… let’s discuss how to resolve this.”
4. The Boundary: At some point, you will need to pull rank and outline the consequences of not following through.
“If [concrete observations] don’t change, we may have to consider [possible consequences].”
5. The Limit: If the situation requires it, the employee may get one last chance to improve. “This is your final warning. Let me lay this out for you…”
Raymond stresses that this dial can be turned up and down depending on the situation. For serious issues, you may jump immediately to The Conversation, or even The Limit. But for many things, a few focused Mentions will do the job. That’s why it’s critical to build real-time feedback into your management style.
For me personally, I believe that learning to manage the accountability challenge is critical for leadership. It has been so for me. I recommend this book as a valuable resource for anyone at any level of leadership, but especially for those who are yet new in leadership or unhappy with the results so far.
The dial is the place to start, but as Raymond points out, it’s what you do with it that truly counts. The accountability dial is a useful way to start a dialogue, and it’s what happens during the actual dialogue that separates the average managers from the great leaders. He shares some ideas that follow are among the hardest to master but they undoubtably will have a massive impact on your team over time.
Ask open questions. Asking questions that require more than just a yes/no response is an essential skill. Whether it’s during a one-on-one, a weekly update, or real-time feedback, the more questions you can ask, the more accountable your team will become. Some good examples are…
What are you trying to achieve?
What’s not working?
What help do you need?
What resources do you have available?
What’s becoming clearer to you?
Even requests or directives are more powerful when they’re made as open questions. Think about the difference between these two sentences. What’s more memorable and effective?
“Please try and arrive on time.”
“What will you do to make sure you arrive on time?”
Weed out excuses. No question, holding someone accountable can be uncomfortable for both sides. After asking a difficult question, it’s tempting to accept the first answer you get to ease the tension. But that will short-circuit any good your start has made. You must weed out excuses when you hear them.
So what’s the difference between an “excuse” and a “reason”? An excuse is a statement of cause that assumes no responsibility. Has anything like this ever happened to you? A team member arrives late and misses the meeting. You say, “Hey, Dan—it’s 9:30, and you missed the huddle. Everything OK?”
Dan might say, “Sorry—weather was bad, and I got stuck in traffic.” That’s an excuse, even if it is true, because there is no personal accountability.
The accountable response would be something like this, “Sorry, I didn’t take the weather into account, and I should have sent a message when I realized I was running late.” Here he assumes responsibility and acknowledges there was more he could have done. When people realize there is more they could have—and should have—done to get a better outcome, it can be uncomfortable. But as a leader, you can’t shy away from it. Make failures learning opportunities.
Don’t solve—empathize. Resisting the urge to solve the problems you find will not feel good or natural. But it’s important that you get used to it. Not all problems are your problems to solve.
Raymond says, “One of the reasons why so many managers jump to providing an answer is because it can feel really good to solve other people’s problems, especially when they seem easy to solve. But if you’re always playing the hero, you steal the glory from your team.
When your team comes to you with a problem, it’s a powerful approach to say, “That sounds tough — are you okay?” rather than jumping immediately to the solution. Perhaps the most useful question a leader can ask is, “What will you do about it?”
Disagree and commit. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, coined the expression “disagree and commit” to formalize a manager’s responsibilities to allow teammates to make their own decisions—and be held accountable for them. Many leaders, including leaders of the largest organizations like Netflix, agree with him.
Every leader knows just how hard it is to allow your team to make decisions that you might not agree with—or that you suspect may fail. And you have to be careful with suggestions as well because it often appears to them to be a command or a prior decision on your part. It may come back to haunt you if they simply think they are doing what you decided.
Outline the consequences. Holding people accountable and asking tough questions can expose performance issues in an individual. But what happens if, despite regular feedback and conversations, someone’s performance doesn’t improve? Setting boundaries requires you to define the consequences of overstepping them. There are two types of consequences: punitive and protective. A punitive consequence is one whose objective is to punish certain behaviors. A protective consequence is one that protects your needs as a business and as a team. Which of these consequences for repeated lateness is punitive and which is protective?
“If you keep arriving late for meetings, you won’t be invited on the company trip to San Francisco next month.”
“If you keep arriving late for meetings, we won’t be able to afford you the flexibility of working remotely.”
In the first example, following through on the consequence won’t resolve the genuine issues of reliability and punctuality, but removing the flexibility of workhours will help protect the team’s needs. The term “consequences” can be scary because it’s often associated with firing someone. In reality, there is a wide spectrum of possible consequences including switching roles, extra training, and termination. A good leader is clear on these.
If you are leading, it is your job to hold your team accountable—even when it feels uncomfortable. It takes regular feedback, coaching, and probing questions to bring out your team’s ownership, which is the path to success and satisfaction. Where would you put yourself on the accountability dial? How can you improve and grow?