As a leader, your job is to create an environment where people work together in service of a shared goal - a high achievement environment where people wake up in the...
Did you know that one out of every two managers is terrible at accountability?
According to a study published in Harvard Business Review that researched 5,400 managers globally, 46% were rated “too little” on the item, “Holds people accountable — firm when they don’t deliver.” It didn't matter what type of leader- the results held steady for C-level executives, middle managers, supervisors and even subordinates. In different countries and cultures.
Holding people accountable is the single biggest thing that managers avoid doing. Globally.
Why do so many of us dread making others accountable even when it's critical for business performance, employee morale and job satisfaction?
Because it's tough. We have to pull people up on issues, remind people what they need to do and talk to them about improving. As humans beings we hate conflict and we fear being labelled a micromanager. We worry making people accountable will make them dislike us. It feels uncomfortable. But it can also make life even more uncomfortable when people aren't doing work at the right standard or timeline.
Not only that, we can often be inconsistent in our accountability. Often, where we are accountable provides insights into ourselves - what we like doing and what we don't. What we value and what we don't. It can mean doing things we don't want to. It means trusting ourselves and our abilities. It also means being a mature adult and accepting personal responsibility for our lives. This means taking full ownership of results - both good and bad.
Accountability is tied to promises. Leaders that make excuses for substandard work, not only reduce trust with other departments but send the message to their own team that under-performing is satisfactory. The end result is that it is really difficult to improve performance when everyone is used to submitting half-arsed work and avoiding accountability. It creates a vicious cycle of poor accountability in a team and even across a whole organisation.
Leading into the High Achievement Zone
In my Achievement Zone model, leaders whose team in stay in the Achievement Zone create an environment that's both psychologically safe and accountable. Team members know they have to deliver at a high standard and enjoy working in an environment of continuous improvement.
As you can see above, some team leaders create a safe space, but their team fails to deliver on time or to a high standard. This is called the Abatement Zone where performance is declining. Except no-one will acknowledge it. In this team zone, employees are too busy thinking they're doing a great job - while their KPIs keep getting missed.
In my work with leadership teams, I have come across many successful leaders who manage being in the Achievement Zone more frequently.
So what are they doing that ensures their team keeps delivering even during uncertain times? They demand high standards and because of how they treat the team and how they act - people work hard to please them. It isn't one thing that they do - it is a range of interrelated things that work together to form a powerful team culture.
Culture of Accountability
Let's go through how Achievement Zone leaders keep their team members and themselves accountable:
1. Communicate and uphold high expectations - Accountability is about providing structure so that people know what is expected of them, in order to deliver to expectations. Achievement Zone leaders always make their high expectations clear, regularly clarifying how work can be done better in service of the customer. They do this through modelling this in themselves - always working on themselves to do a better job; even using a coach or mentor to help them keep momentum.
In my research, I find many Achievement Zone leaders communicate their expectations with an inspiring phrase or a slogan. Employees will even refer to them in conversations with colleagues "We have to raise the bar. Sarah always tells us that. Is this raising the bar?" Their clear expectations ensures there is never any confusion between just good enough and great. In fact, the main fear people have in an Achievement Zone is letting down their boss for not doing great work.
2. Communicate work to be done clearly - They also make it crystal clear what work needs to be done and what they expect. Clear directive helps people feel safe because they know what is required. Everyone knows the tasks to be done and who is doing what in service of the big goal.
3. Regular one-on-ones - Achievement Zone leaders connect frequently with their direct reports. They listen to their concerns and if required, escalate matters to the leadership team while always keeping their report informed of the progress. It demonstrates to their staff that they are valued, respected and supported. One-on-one's are used to connect employees to the goals, values and tasks ensuring they know how to meet high standards.
4. Create safety - Achievement Zone leaders challenge their direct reports to excel and provide a safety net. It means employees know they can make a mistake and they won't be punished. They also create an environment where honest conversations can occur. Candour is rewarded. On the other hand, Abatement Zone leaders create safety - but it's a pseudo safety that's a comfort zone where people can coast and take their time. In the Achievement Zone, employees are challenged and know they are safe to try new things and make mistakes. They are given the psychological support to inspire them to keep going when things get tough. While in the Abatement Zone, employees feel comfortable with their peers, but it's more about staying the same.
5. They are visible - Achievement Zone leaders are approachable and visible. Even when they are busy in meetings their direct reports know they can talk to them in an emergency. They also turn up - they never miss meetings or are really late.
6. They're accountable - Accountability is two-way. Not only does the team need to be accountable for performance, but leaders must also model accountability. This requires the leader to always be doing their best work, achieving their KPIs and not making excuses when things get hard. Through modelling accountable behaviours, an Achievement Zone leader tacitly has permission to demand accountability and not tolerate poor performance in others.
7. Focus people on a meaningful future - There are times when work isn't easy or fun. Achievement Zone leaders acknowledge this, but still communicate a compelling vision that encourages employees to feel that the hard work will be worth it.
8. Low toleration for poor performers - Most importantly, an Achievement Zone never lets a poor performer reduce the standards of the group. Not everyone is motivated to perform at a high level. And Achievement Zone leaders know this. They will provide the support needed to help an employee lift their game. But they also make the consequences clear of poor delivery, so when the time comes to let someone go, that person knows exactly why they had to leave.
Below you can see how all these factors work together to create a high trust and accountable workplace (from my book Trusted to Thrive).
Through their behaviours an Achievement Zone leader implicitly tells people that they are respected, valued and have the ability to do their job well. They then provide the right scaffolding to ensure each team members has the support, know-how and information to work at a high level.
When accountability is clear, it provides employees with the structure and security they need to perform at a higher level.
The main goal with creating a culture of accountability is to ensure that everybody knows what is expected of them, so they lead themselves. If they see an issue, they fix it. Employees understand what high quality work looks like and work towards it. They have the autonomy to do work their way.
This makes people feel trusted which works toward them doing their best for the team and being loyal. Best of all, it creates a wonderful team culture where people feel good about themselves and love their job. You can learn more about how to do this in my latest book, Trusted to Thrive: How leaders create connected and accountable teams.