The 3 Biggest Liability Problems and What You Can Do to Fix Them
AAccountability is REQUIRED for human systems to function. Whether you’re talking about governments, companies, sports teams, or families, accountability is what makes sure things run smoothly and progress continues.
But often, there are problems with how accountability is understood and how it is implemented that makes it ineffective or even counterproductive. Knowing the limitations of traditional notions of accountability can help leaders create a more inspiring, supportive, and transformative version of accountability.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you could kick the man in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” This humorous observation has some truth, but it is also symbolic of a more traditional approach to accountability – with some inherent flaws.
Here are the major limitations of traditional notions of accountability:
Results only: The main goal is to achieve the task or performance results. Are you doing what you should be doing? Did you hit your numbers this quarter? While results are very important, focusing only on performance results can lead to ignoring other, equally important aspects of what it means to be effective in the long run – things like better relationships and learning. It also provides a binary, “pass/fail” approach to evaluating outcomes, which can be discouraging and limit what you can learn from it.
Focus on individuals: Traditional accountability emphasizes individual responsibility. Individual responsibility is an important aspect of accountability, but it carries the risk of people viewing situations through the lens of only themselves and missing the larger, collective goals. At worst, it can result in people developing a “that’s not my job” mentality, which undermines morale, capacity, and results.
Blame is directed at: When something goes wrong, often, the first question asked is, “Who should be held accountable?” This type of backward-looking accountability focuses on the apportionment of blame and punishment – who should get the “kick in the pants?” But in most situations, making mistakes or failing to make mistakes is not a black-and-white situation for retaliation. They can really represent learning moments. A blame orientation incites fear and leads to people masking problems and avoiding more robust discussions of deficiencies, resulting in the loss of opportunities for learning, growth , and progress over time.
The consequence of these limitations is that they undermine the power of accountability as a force for efficiency, connection, and learning. These problems turn accountability into something essentially transactional: “Focus on the result, do your part, and don’t mess up!” This method is limited because it is narrower, sterile, and even scary. This leaves many possibilities on the table.
So what is the solution? Here are three strategies for taking a different approach to accountability that will allow you to reap the benefits of strong accountability while avoiding the pitfalls.
1. Focus on people and results
Instead of focusing on the results related to the work you are aiming for, make sure you also focus on people’s experience of working for the results. How do you want people to feel about themselves and each other as a function of their work together? How do you want people to grow during the process? And when pondering the question “How well did we do?” make sure you create space to consider how team members experience the process, how relationships are affected, and how much people learn.
2. Make accountability a team sport
Expand the accountability frame to go beyond what individuals are responsible for to create a collective sense of responsibility for achieving team goals. Discuss what that means — whether that’s covering other team members, helping others achieve their goals, sharing information and resources, asking others for feedback, and seeing the big picture. Everyone must be accountable to themselves but also to each other, as well as shared groups of stakeholders (customers, suppliers, investors, and the public).
3. No matter what happens, look for the learning
Have a growth mindset that sees failures, mistakes, and setbacks as important opportunities for growth. When there are problems, instead of focusing on who is at fault, find out who is responsible for improving the situation, what to learn from what happened, and what you will do differently next time. Normalize the fact that things sometimes go wrong by talking about your own mistakes and what you learned from them.
Done differently, accountability can be a transformative thing, creating a mindset where everyone takes responsibility for individual and collective goals, no one wants to let anyone down, and people move on. that is learning and developing. As a result, accountability has changed from creating panic and anxiety to promoting enthusiasm, engagement, and connection.
David C. Tate is a licensed clinical psychologist, executive coach, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, as well as a lecturer at the Yale School of Management. He is the co-founder and CEO of Conscious Growth Partners, a consultancy that helps organizations grow through better leadership, teamwork, and culture. Marianne Pants is a licensed clinical psychologist and executive coach. He is the co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Conscious Growth Partners, LLC. He also serves as a senior facilitator for the Interpersonal and Group Dynamics Program at the Yale University School of Management. Their new book is with co-author Daryn David Mindful Accountability: Deepening Connections, Increasing Results. Learn more at consciousgrowthpartners.com.
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