As a manager, it is a difficult balance to promote accountability for business results while showing kindness to the individuals on your team. How do you find the sweet spot between being kind and holding people accountable? The secret is to over-index on clear expectations and then provide frequent, low-impact coaching and feedback to help your team members without shifting ownership of responsibility. This article covers some techniques to instill in your team the feeling that they can be vulnerable with you and responsible for hitting their goals.
Your team has a lot to do, so you can’t afford to have anyone on board constantly letting their teammates down. You need individuals who understand their responsibilities and feel obligated to deliver – a team full of people who feel accountable. But building a responsible team is easier said than done.
You can’t MAKE another person liable; accountability is a feeling. Sure, you can use incentives or bonuses to try to force them to care. Or you can use threats, punishments, or the stink eye to make them more likely to feel responsible (without you actually trying). Unfortunately, our common language and metaphors for accountability evoke this type of punitive approach. We talk about people who are “on the hook,” as if employees are fish that have been baited with no escape. If that isn’t exciting enough, I hear leaders talk about “a throat to choke.” This is the language of fear, not accountability.
Your challenge is to create accountability using compassion instead of fear. If you are a compassionate manager, your team knows that struggle is tolerated, understood, and even accepted. As a compassionate manager, you change your expectations when the situation calls for it. But as with most leadership behaviors, you can have too much of a good thing; Exaggerating it out of compassion does not mean that kindness is not always good. So, how do you find that elusive combination of accountability and compassion? Here are some ways to instill in your team the feeling that they can be vulnerable and responsible at the same time.
How to Improve Accountability While Showing Compassion
Set Clear Expectations
It all starts with creating clear and shared expectations. If you change the initial dialogue and fail to answer the questions of why, what, and who, you will likely find that the outputs provided by your employees are not up to the mark. Then you’ll be forced to step in after your team has spent time and energy, which can be demoralizing (not to mention unpleasant).
Instead, foster accountability through clear expectations. A tip: Clear expectations do not have an adjective. Adjectives are slippery, slimy clarity-killers. It’s hard for your direct reports to be held accountable for innovation, timeliness, or teamwork when those words have very different images for each of you. Substitute nouns and verbs for adjectives, so “collaborative” becomes “make sure to get the marketing evaluation of the opportunity and include it in your analysis.” Setting expectations is your best approach to creating proactive rather than punitive accountability.
The next step is to add processes and tools to keep everyone focused on progress. Knowing that everyone on the team has visibility into progress (or lack thereof) improves accountability. If your team is physically together, you can use a command center where you can post visual reminders of commitments and track the delivery of milestones. If you’re a remote or hybrid team, you can turn to digital roadmaps, progress trackers, or whiteboards as touchstones. Don’t stop at more visibility; instead, review your tracking in one-on-one and team meetings and use this as an opportunity to air any concerns or lingering issues.
Create Psychological Safety
No matter how precisely you set expectations and how well you monitor progress, you shouldn’t expect perfection. The next step in promoting accountability is to create a safe psychological space for employees to share their struggles.
When perfection is the only option, some employees may feel unable to take responsibility. If, instead, you invite your team to share their difficulties, you will get the opportunity to teach and guide them towards a clear understanding of the problem and a set of practical solutions. But beware: Guidance helps, while solving their problems for them eliminates accountability instead of strengthening it because it teaches your employees that they don’t have to be accountable because of you. What’s worse is that coming to the rescue of your team members may leave the impression that you don’t trust them, so now you’ve lost accountability and compassion in the blink of an eye! So instead of avoiding the discomfort, encourage them to work by saying something like, “I agree that this is our most difficult launch ever. That’s why I put you on. Can you help me solve some of the problems you’re facing?” The secret is to acknowledge their difficulties while showing that you are confident that they can survive.
Be a Coach, Not a Micromanager
However you should be careful not to give answers or dictate how your employees need to complete their tasks, you want to provide a perspective that they can’t get on their own. Just make sure your feedback comes in a series of minor course corrections rather than a flurry of frustration or disdain. As you train each employee, your primary responsibility is to guide their attention rather than dictate how they work. Ask questions that allow them to question their approach and teach them to recognize their own assumptions or to play out alternative scenarios. Help them see the unintended consequences of their approach. In the previous example, you could guide them by saying, “I feel like the most important thing in this launch is to get the pilot region right. You have the West Coast first in your plan now, and I’m worried how our big accounts on the East Coast are reacting. How do you figure out the criteria for where you’re going to go first?”
Use the Right Consequences
Sometimes leaders are surprised to hear that I encourage them to use consequences as a fundamental part of learning. The caveat is that you must watch out for beneficial, constructive behavior so that most of the consequences you provide are positive and reinforcing (such as recognition, rewards, or greater responsibility). Then, if necessary, use negative consequences that you adapt to the situation. Start with relatively innocuous interventions (like increasing the number of milestones for someone missing deadlines), and if you don’t see a change in their behavior, scale up the consequences accordingly. . And remember, while consequences are important, compassion means recognizing situations where no action is required on your part because the person’s frustration and discomfort is consequence enough.
When All Else Fails, Allow a Graceful Exit
Finally, I’ll share the most counterintuitive advice of all: Compassionate leaders understand that sometimes the best thing you can do is let go of someone who isn’t performing. That’s because teams have a social dynamic, and once an individual loses your trust, it’s always clear to their teammates that they’re in trouble. That puts an unlikely situation where the group loses trust and therefore has little chance of success. In that situation, it’s best to channel your compassion into helping the person make a graceful exit and supporting them as they look for a new role.
It is a difficult balance to promote accountability for business outcomes while showing kindness to individuals. The secret is to over-index on clear expectations and then provide frequent, low-impact coaching and feedback to help your team members without transferring ownership. This is a winning formula for a happy, healthy, and productive team.