Great leaders know how to set clear expectations and standards for their teams. It requires transparency and strong communication skills and it helps shape the behavior they expect from their employees. When that communication is not clear, those leaders and teams experience breakdowns, finger-pointing, and blame that can ripple through the entire organization.
What’s typically missing in these situations is what I call “The Mirror.” The mirror is simply setting the expectation that you look at yourself first in all situations in which a breakdown has occurred – even when the breakdown didn’t originate with you.
I hear it all of the time from my executive coaching clients: no one in their organization is accountable, no one takes ownership. But when the topic comes up, never once are the leaders talking about themselves. It’s always about their directs, there cross functional partners or the organization as a whole not being accountable.
Then, they take my Accountability Mirror™ workshop and within the first hour, their eyes are opened to the fact that that they themselves are not modeling accountability to a high level. It’s eye opening and game-changing for these executives when they realize that they have blind spots like everyone else. They themselves don’t hold themselves to a high level of accountability, and now for the first time, they understand the need to take a deeper look at themselves first before blaming others. They need to ask themselves:
- How accountable am I really?
- Where are the gaps in my own accountability?
- How can I start by modeling accountability to others?
But answering these questions objectively takes practice. After the workshop, I ask my clients to spend a month practicing the level of accountability they now know is possible so that it becomes deeply integrated in their being.
Let’s say you delegated a sales presentation to a direct report last week. When they deliver the final presentation to you this week, it doesn’t resemble at all what you are looking for. It doesn’t meet your standards, and it doesn’t match your expectations for the performance you typically require of your staff. Most leaders would either get upset, correct the employee or just take the project back and do it over themselves.
But what I would say to that leader is:
- How effective was your request to the employee in regards to the project?
- Did you provide enough context that would help the individual understand all of the components necessary for producing what you want them to produce?
- Did you take the time to explain everything, or was it a rushed hand-off because you needed to get it off your plate quickly?
- Did you set them up for success, or did you expect some level of mind reading from the employee?
The breakdowns will continue to happen if you fail to give yourself a performance grade for how effective you were in that request. The most impactful response to that employee would be to tell them, “I don’t know that I set you up for success as well as I could have. Let me walk you through this project so that you can learn from this example what I expect from you moving forward.”
In this situation, you’re spending the necessary time coaching, developing and training the individual to meet the level and standards that you expect. Radical accountability involves owning your part in every interaction.
What Is An Effective Request?
The first step in avoiding breakdowns is to have accountability conversation standards in the workplace. Those begin with effective requests. Effective requests are the foundation for working well together because they ensure that both parties understand one another. The six elements of an effective request include:
- A committed speaker — are you engaged and specific in your request?
- A committed listener — is your employee attentive and clear in their understanding of the request?
- Future action/conditions of satisfaction — did you provide specific parameters for the request?
- Time frame — did you set a clear expectation for completion/deadline?
- Mood/tenor — are you setting an appropriate tone?
- Context — did you provide a sufficient explanation of how the request fits into the big picture?
Excerpted from the JMA Accountability Mirror™ Workshop, a one-day interactive program that teaches individuals, teams and leaders strategies to immediately reach a higher level of performance.
The confusion often starts with the person who initiated the request. But we all have blind spots in understanding our own performance, so you need to be able to shift the focus from external (pointing fingers at others) to internal (taking a look at yourself). Accountability won’t be possible in your organization if you don’t start by practicing it yourself.
Another component in accountability is the fact that when there is a problem, we want to immediately solve it. But rarely do we stop and consider how we contributed to the problem in the first place. For a lot of the leaders I work with, this is a component they are missing.
A leader’s mission is to drive results from a team that is in complete alignment, but that’s difficult to do unless you are impeccable with your communication. If you have ten direct reports and each come to you daily with multiple questions about their projects because you didn’t make yourself clear in your directives, that’s a lot of bottle necking that could be avoided by being accountable in your communication.
Once you master this yourself, it’s very easy to support your employees when they come to you with problems or breakdowns. You can share this protocol with them and discuss how the breakdown occurred, how they could have done better, and how they can rectify the situation so that it doesn’t happen again. That conversation isn’t common in organizations but when it is, the results are transformative.
Compassion and Accountability
Leaders are also currently faced with the dilemma of being compassionate about everything people have gone through during the current pandemic while trying to uphold accountability standards. Instead of thinking of the two as opposites, think about how you can combine compassion and accountability.
Harvard Business Review recently interviewed experts who study motivation and compassion at work. Some of their suggestions include diving deeper into the reasons behind underperformance. In addition to examining your role in the situation first, consider other factors that could be contributing to the employee’s situation such as motivation, stress, lack of training, workflow, etc.
Another idea is to encourage accountability at the team level rather than just at the individual level. When you make accountability a collective goal, the results are often greater. Sit down as a team and problem solve together.
If you want to drive more effective results, be better at execution, align your team, and elevate your leadership, look in “The Mirror” first.