With consumers besieged by high inflation, soaring gas prices and rising interest rates, more businesses may start feeling the brunt of these economic pressures, which makes getting the best results they want out of their employees as important as ever.
But how can leaders hold their teams accountable in ways that drive performance without driving people away? After all, during the Great Resignation, droves of people left their jobs because they were unhappy with leadership and the work culture.
How leaders think about accountability is how leaders tend to do accountability. Accountability often is perceived as a negative word, but shifting the focus from “results first” to “relationships first” can benefit businesses and workers in the long run, says Jennifer T. Long, a Certified Master Coach and ForbesBooks author of Own Up!: How To Hold People Accountable Without All The Drama.
“The cultural mindset around accountability is frequently associated with consequences and retribution and punishment,” Long says. “While results are what keeps a business viable and profitable, that approach doesn’t reflect how people are wired to be most productive, most innovative, and most willing to give discretionary effort.
“An accountability mindset change on the part of leaders is needed. An accountability conversation focusing primarily on business results removes the personal connection and fails to leverage the power of human effort. Taking a relationship-first perspective is far more effective than a results-first approach. The problem is convincing some managers and leaders that this is the case. And to drive accountability by putting relationships first means leaders must first take ownership of their own expectations and experiences and approach every conversation with curiosity, not judgment.”
Long says some benefits of adopting a relationships-first accountability mindset include:
- Learning and growth. Rather than trying to fix people by focusing on their deficits, skills gaps and weaknesses, leaders focus instead on learning and growth. “We are already in an era of strengths-based development,” Long says. “Accountability is opportunity. Think of having accountability conversations as an easy, everyday launching point for ongoing change and development. A relationship-first approach to performance, with its emphasis on ownership and trust, yields employees who are much more willing to change and challenge themselves.”
- Critical thinking and co-created problem solving. Another shift in mindset comes from valuing discovery around the performance problems your employees or peers may have, as well as the discovery in how to solve problems together. “The ability to ask questions that probe areas of concern as well as reveal how others think and make decisions is the heart of knowing and trusting others,” Long says.
- Being reflective and clear. “When you approach accountability from a place of clarity, you stop making assumptions,” Long says. “You reflect on your real expectations, and you inquire about what’s actually driving your employees’ behaviors.” Too many managers, she says, in trying to solve problems quickly make assumptions about why things are happening and about the intentions and abilities of others.
- Ownership and solution-building. Shame and blame, Long says, come from a place of fear, and some work cultures tolerate these behaviors “as if they were the only solutions to performance problems.” And when people don’t trust company leadership or other divisions of the company, they operate from what she calls a place of self-protection. “By contrast,” Long says, “empowerment and engagement come when you can easily address your own choices as well as an employee’s or teammate’s choices without fear, anxiety or drama.”
- Continuous and daily practice. “Accountability is a way of being, not a tool to leverage only in times of crisis,” Long says. “When we are accountable for all our choices, behaviors and results, we become empowered human beings who are learning, changing and growing together. “Continuous and daily practice of accountability makes the moments of failure far fewer and less damaging, and transforms those moments into opportunities for growth and change.”
Long says if you’re going to do accountability well, leaders must be able to do it well when the chips are down.
“If leaders don’t shift their mindset, they’re likely to default to old behavioral tendencies when operating at speed and under pressure,” she says. “The trick is to replace those outdated and oft-negative tendencies with productive ones that bring out the best in everyone.”
Jennifer T. Long is a Certified Master Coach and the ForbesBooks author of Own Up!: How To Hold People Accountable Without All The Drama. Also a Master Trainer, Long is the CEO of Management Possible, a leadership development company providing coaching for leaders and managers across various disciplines. She hosts the Organizational Transformation Kung Fu podcast with Sandi Verrecchia. Along with her nearly four decades working with leaders, Long spent 10 years as a theater director, an experience that helped inform her methodology – elevating the idea that conversation and relationships are the prime movers of impact and culture.