Why is it important for leaders to walk the fine line of accountability?

By Joe Bertotto – guest thought leader

Accountability is one of the swaying tightropes every leader walks. How to effectively hold team members accountable can be a slippery slope as leaders sometimes struggle with the nuts and bolts of when to take the action and the force with which to take it.

That said, it can be helpful to think of accountability on a continuum. At one end of the spectrum sits zero accountability. Here, leaders occasionally enforce proper behavior.

Among the reasons that leaders don't hold team members consistently accountable is fear of demoralizing them. "If I push too hard people might start to only do the minimum required to get the work done" can be the leader's thinking. When infrequent discussions take place with team members who are not performing in accordance with agreed-upon behaviors, confusion arises, as members don't understand what sets unacceptable behavior apart from acceptable behavior.

(see original article in www.centralpennbusiness.com)

This lack of clarity can be an insidious driver of poor performance and can lead to a very dispirited workplace.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is brutal accountability. When a leader engages in brutal accountability, he is unrelenting in correcting team members' behavior. Nothing can ever be good enough for the leader. The leader does not allow members the freedom to be themselves within the context of acceptable, agreed-upon behaviors.

This becomes problematic, as people want a degree of autonomy in how they best complete their work and interact with each other.

At worst, leaders who engage in this type of behavior can create a strong sense of fear. People watch their every action not wanting the wrath of their boss turned on them. When writing emails, team member's check and double check the language to make sure the wording doesn't appear in contradiction to what their boss wants. Conversations are guarded or even embellished to make everything sound more appealing than it actually is.

Members merely comply and do what needs to be done. All discretionary effort is lost. Passion becomes an afterthought or is directed to activities outside of work. Goodwill actions made by the leader are lost in the barrage of difficult discussions.

Neither of these options is effective. The better alternative is right in the middle of zero accountability and brutal accountability. Here is where compassionate accountability resides.

The genius is always at the midpoint, and when a leader can work with a caring heart and a steel spine, brilliant things happen in the workplace. Compassionate accountability is built on the principle that people come through the doors of their employer every day to do their best work. If that is the case, it can be useful to assume innocence when they fall short.

When a leader employs compassionate accountability, she always wants to improve performance while keeping the team members' self- esteem high and the relationship intact long term.

So if a team member is not behaving appropriately, the leader does not hesitate to have the conversation about why this is happening. The confrontation is driven more by questions and solutions than by directives. Asking powerful questions can help tease out the reason for the misstep. Questions like:

• Specifically, what is preventing you from behaving in accordance with what we've agreed upon?

• If we could create the perfect scenario for you to behave properly, what would it look like?

• If you could change one thing about your approach at work to date, what would it be?

• How can I support you?

• If you don't follow through on the actions we've discussed, what do you think should be the consequence?

You can always confront people much more softly with questions than with statements. By inviting the member of the team to talk about the problem and the solution, you address the issue with an eye toward improvement. Additionally, this approach creates a discussion where learning is the primary method of discipline. That's what great teams do. With this approach leadership becomes a dialogue, not a monologue.

Practical tip: The next time someone falls short of an expectation, start the conversation with questions (not statements) always assuming innocence. Go into the conversation with the goal of getting to a mutually agreed-upon solution, as well as the consequence if the situation is not corrected.

By inviting the team member into crafting a resolution, chances are high that she will succeed.

Joe Bertotto is the chief culture officer at HydroWorx International in Middletown, PA. You can reach him at jbertotto@hydroworx.com.

Posted on August 28, 2013 .