Accountability is one of the biggest year-round challenges business leaders face.
It’s also one of the most misunderstood and misapplied factors in determining the success of an individual, team or enterprise.
From my interviews with senior leaders of successful companies of all sizes in a range of industries all over the world, I learned there’s no single silver bullet for building and sustaining a culture where accountability is cheered and not feared.
Through my research, I discovered cultures, systems and ways of behaving all the time that I call the 7 Pillars of Accountability.
Accountability—doing what you said you would so when you said you would do it—is a foundation of trust on which enduring relationships, predictable results and respected organizations are built.
How do savvy leaders sustain accountability in themselves and in others? How do they guide colleagues toward improvement when expectations are missed? What’s the right amount of time to give someone to get their performance back on track?
Here are resources for you that address those questions.
So it follows that accountability should look, feel and sound like coaching—not scolding.
Here are three simple yet effective coaching approaches for rejuvenating underperformers:
Leverage your core values. Whether you call the behaviors that matter most to your organization core values, fundamentals, principles or something else, it’s important to realize those words provide guidance for decision-making—for you and those around you. When you observe someone whose actions are not in alignment with the behaviors articulated by your values, ask the person to describe how the way they’re showing up aligns with the behaviors the organization admires. Sometimes this gentle nudge is all the person needs to realize they’re not showing up in the way the organization expects of them, and they will adjust their behavior accordingly.
Let tracking do the heavy lifting of accountability. Clarity is a great motivator. Ambiguity is a great de-motivator, at least to your high-performing employees. Tracking is your mechanism for communicating clearly and unambiguously the performance occurring at the enterprise, business unit, departmental, and individual levels. It’s what your best employees want. Timely, accurate and visible data is a wordless coaching conversation that provides a scoreboard of results for everyone. And it’s a key tool the hundreds of companies I’ve surveyed under-utilize.
Lead with questions. If the underperformer continues to miss expectations, how you handle this behavior becomes a reputation-defining moment for you as a leader. Answering these 8 questions about underperformance can guide you toward doing what’s best for you, the underperformer and your organization.
For more about coaching approaches to drive accountability, download my free eBook The Insider’s Guide to Rejuvenating Underperformers from the home page of my website.
How long should you give someone to get their performance back on track?
It’s a question I hear frequently. My short answer is, “When you don’t feel guilty.” If you’ve been clear about expectations, removed barriers and provided coaching along the way, the rest is up to the other person. You cannot want success more than the person you’re coaching.
Here’s a more scientific response to the “How long?” question.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg offers research showing that habits are formed in a three-step loop: “a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain…which habit to use,” next a routine, and lastly a reward, “which helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future.”
The length of time to form a habit depends on the person’s belief in each of the three steps. And themselves.
In his ground-breaking book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz pioneered the concept of a positive self-image. Maltz believed the way in which a person views themselves controls their ability to achieve (or fail to achieve) any goal. Specifically, Malz advanced the so-called 21/90 theory that, based on his studies and experience working with his clients, determined it takes 21 days to create a new habit and 90 days to incorporate that habit into your life.
Another guideline about how much time to allow someone to improve their performance—in essence, to develop a new habit—is found in the solar system. Nature’s principles are consistent with Malz’s findings:
The earth spins on its axis, producing night and day, while simultaneously moving about the sun in an elliptical orbit (an elongated circle). This orbit requires about 365¼ days to complete, and the earth’s spin axis is tilted with respect to its orbital plane. This is what causes the seasons.
If the earth’s movement around the sun brings about the change of seasons every 90 days or so, shouldn’t 90 days be enough time for someone to change their behavior? Ninety days is a season. And a season should be enough time to bring about personal change.
Spring, summer, fall or winter, accountability is always in season.
To dive even deeper into the topic of accountability, I invite you to purchase a copy of my bestselling book, “Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.”
Business schools teach case studies. Hollywood blockbusters are inspired by true events.
Exceptional leaders are students of history. Decision-making comes with the territory.