The Secret to Holding Your Team Accountable is Curiosity

Jun 29, 2022

Why are the people on my team not evolving or growing the way I would like them to? How am I supposed to hold my team accountable for reaching specific performance and behavior goals? If you are a leader asking yourself these questions, you are not alone.

Day in and day out, people disappoint one another by failing to keep promises and meet expectations.

What is a leader supposed to do? Speak up and hold people accountable or suffer in disappointed, angry silence? Sadly, many leaders choose the latter to avoid creating a bigger problem. But in doing so, they’re just allowing the problem to fester and get bigger.

Defining Accountability

In a nutshell, accountability is taking responsibility for your actions or holding others responsible for theirs. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment; it’s a responsibility to an outcome.

Accountability is hard. There is no way around it. Asking someone to be accountable does not guarantee they will be, which can quickly lead to emotionally charged arguments that result in decreased engagement, loss of productivity, and strained relationships, which all take their toll on the bottom line.

Accountability involves validation, empathy, responsibility, vulnerability, and growth. It requires a leader to choose courage over comfort every day. Holding people to higher standards because you care about them is the way to go.

Build Your Understanding

There are many things leaders can do to create a healthy company culture of accountability, but first, it’s essential to understand what not to do.

Let’s be honest. Accountability can be a sensitive topic. It’s very easy to get into a heated argument if we don’t use the right approach to address an accountability problem.

Command and control don’t work. Getting angry and shaming people when they fall short is counterproductive. Motivation and high-level performance are sure to take a hit.

The good news is that leaders have options. We don’t have to shame people into accountability. Shaming is a waste of time and energy; it doesn’t work. Using kind, direct, and respectful language helps people feel safe taking responsibility for their actions.

Leaders can start by asking themselves the following questions:

  • How do I like to be held accountable?
  • How am I modeling accountability for my team?
  • How do we define accountability around here?
  • How does senior leadership model accountability for the organization as a whole?

Choose Your Battles

Not every battle is worth fighting. When holding people accountable, choose the issues that matter the most. And create a safe zone to talk about it. The way people respond to being held responsible has a lot to do with how their leader approaches them.

Help them feel safe. Let people know the goal of the discussion is to improve things for all parties involved. Let people know they’re not alone. You, as their leader, have their back and will match their level of commitment to the best of your ability. You’re in this together.

Work together to remove whatever barriers stand in the way of your team delivering their best work. Agree on solutions together. The focus should be on empowering versus disempowering. And that may require the leader to let go of a little bit of control. Hold on lightly, not tightly.

Validate First

We so often leap to fixing first. Start with validation, and you will be amazed at how much time and energy you will save everyone involved!

The key is to help people feel seen, heard, and understood and acknowledge the many factors that could have led to broken promises and commitments. When we do this, we enter into the conversation with shared purpose and curiosity and set the stage for identifying the factors behind the unmet expectations, finding the right answer, and creating plans to avoid similar situations in the future.

Follow This Process

In the words of Brene Brown, “Clear is kind.” Aim for kindness by following these six fundamentals of accountability:

Set Clear Expectations:

  1. Before going into any conversation that involves a request, ask yourself: What is the number one expectation I want to create?
  2. Before leaving the conversation, ensure everyone is on the same page by citing what is expected of them.

There is magic in using our voices. And if we skip this step, we risk resolution being open to everyone’s different interpretations. All parties must commit to an agreed-upon set of expectations to be held accountable.

Set Realistic Expectations: Does the person you’re holding accountable have the required capabilities to do the job? If not, can they acquire what’s needed? If so, what resources will they need? Make sure you’re setting them up for success. If that’s not possible, delegate to someone else.

Establish Clear Boundaries: People feel safer when they know what the boundaries are because it gives them a clear sense of the natural consequences for their behavior. Everyone’s behavior is motivated by consequences. People naturally consider the possible outcomes when choosing an action, consciously or unconsciously. They will select the action they believe will yield the best results even though their choice may make no sense to you. There is no need to resort to threats or punishment. All actions have a reaction. By providing options and establishing guardrails through boundary setting, you can guide them into doing the right thing. The right thing being the one that works.

Leaders’ Choice: If a leader can reasonably ensure they have done what is necessary to support a person’s performance, there are three primary choices depending on the circumstances: repeat, reward, or release. Repeat the conversation. Reward the behavior. Or release them without judgment and with their best interest in mind.

Establish Clear Measures: Few people enjoy a negative surprise. Sometimes this happens because people are afraid to ask for help. Other times it happens because of premature optimism. One thing that’s for sure is that negative surprises are preventable if we practice clear communication and put straightforward measures in place up front. These proactive measures are critical to unlocking your team’s potential and will make it easier to have productive conversations when things go sideways.

Stay Flexible: We live in a world where priorities can change in the blink of an eye. But even in the face of emergencies and competing priorities, it is still possible to maintain trust and accountability if we communicate. Be proactive and approachable, and ask people to let you know as soon as circumstances change so you can pivot expectations as needed.

People generally give all they can to the task at hand, so resist the urge to judge. For best results, lead from curiosity. No one can be curious and judgemental at the same time. People can smell judgment a mile away and will clam up and resist anything you have to say if they catch wind of it. How often have you been motivated by judgment?

Today’s leaders will go down in history for putting a new face on leadership. Command and control have been around for as long as we can remember. Times have changed, and we need a new approach. That approach starts with you.