When I look at the teams and individuals I’ve worked with this year, the successes and stumblings, the decisions, the timelines and outcomes; one of the most pivotal and influential ingredients in their progress has been accountability. Accountability is the expectation of having to account for your part in something. For your actions, behaviours, performance and decisions. Many people can be responsible for various parts leading to an outcome, but at the end of the day, only the leader is accountable for the final result. Ask the captain of an aircraft – many moving parts and people make up the operation, but only one person is accountable for the conclusion.
Accountability is a trait that often comes up on the desired values of a team, and frequently because they desire it than that they have it already. We’re all aware of how frustrating it can be when no one will take ownership of their part, and how much it slows us down when we have to drive others as well as ourselves. And yet, accountability is something we shy away from – unless we’ve actually tried it.
Accountability is an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing which, if we’re willing to give it a shot, has all sorts of unexpected effects which are almost the exact opposite of what we’d expect. We expect accountability to feel heavy, to feel stressful, and to add negatively to the load we’re already carrying – when in actual fact it feels completely different to that.
The teams that I’ve personally witnessed not only find ways to keep moving through this torrid year, but who’ve also found clear direction and drive, are those who’ve refused to lay the responsibility for their success or failure at the feet of anyone other than themselves. They’ve dictated their own goals, aiming at their own desired outcomes, regardless of what obstacles may have loomed. They’ve picked apart what would be required of them individually to achieve those aims, and they’ve set about accounting for their progression.
Is this a comfortable process? Not for most. It is an undertaking. A choice to do things differently – to take the bull by the horns. For most, at the onset, it’s daunting. To be accountable is to be exposed. To be accountable is to have your outlook, knowledge, decisions, time and outcomes laid out for the rest of your team to witness in detail. To be accountable is to lay yourself out there for challenge, with nowhere to hide if you mess it up. This is generally the perception.
However, a team that is undertaking full accountability is led by someone who is willing to strive for the same. Leaders who are willing to be accountable to their teams create clear direction to aim at, open spaces for discussion, and input into that space that offers help and support for those willing to step forward. Accountability is empowering. It is ownership that inspires the taker to straighten and put their shoulders back. Accountability invites you to step into a space of certainty, measurability and clarity where you can actually answer the question, “Are we winning? And if not, why not, and what do we do about it?”
Whilst the initial phases of fashioning accountability within a team may feel clunky and challenging due to the resistance we have to laying ourselves out there; once that ball starts turning more freely, several things come to the fore. If we’re willing to fully embrace accountability, then it first requires that we analyse what we’re aiming at and whether we’re spending our time moving towards it, procrastinating, or worse, working on things that don’t get us any closer to that aim. This kind of analysis provides us with clarity and permission to shift our focus to the things that truly matter, laying aside (sometimes for good) the things that clutter our space and our thinking unnecessarily.
Next, we must be specific about the steps we need to take to move closer to the outcomes we’re aiming at. Before undertaking a specific accountability process, most of us are vaguely aimed in the general direction of what we want. Sometimes that aim is as vague as “forward”. When we get specific about the steps we need to take, we shed the lack of control we weren’t even aware we felt and swap it for a feeling of authority over our actions. When we share this thinking process with our team, we inspire each other to hone our processes and step up to our undertakings – we start a ripple of combined energy that’s driving us in a common direction.
When we make the actions that we need to take measurable, we set up a space that is opposite to the vulnerable and judged failure we think we’re going to experience if we don’t hit the targets we set for ourselves. Making out actions measurable isn’t about being able to point a finger at each other if we don’t hit our targets by our designated deadlines – it’s about being able to tell whether we’re making progress, celebrate it when we are, and analyse why we’re not and where we can help each other when we need to.
There is little to no value in swimming circles in your own space rather than being part of a team. When we undertake true accountability, the exposure we fear is rather a sharing with others undertaking the same thing. Accountability is an agreement with self first, and then with team. It is an agreement to take control of what lies in your hands, and then to share that energy with the greater team so that we are stronger together. When we are willing to be truly accountable to each other, we get to share our wins and our stumbling blocks. We get to support each other, and to draw on the combined power that being part of a team is all about.
Author C. Gene Wilkes noted the following points on operating as a team, rather than alone:
- Teams involve more people, thus affording more resources, ideas, and energy than would an individual.
- Teams maximize a leader’s potential and minimize her weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses are more exposed in individuals.
- Teams provide multiple perspectives on how to meet a need or reach a goal, thus devising several alternatives for each situation. Individual insight is seldom as broad and deep as a group’s when it takes on a problem.
- Teams share the credit for victories and the blame for losses. This fosters genuine humility and authentic community. Individuals take credit and blame alone. This fosters pride and sometimes a sense of failure.
- Teams keep leaders accountable for the goal. Individuals connected to no one can change the goal without accountability.
- Teams can simply do more than an individual.
At the end of the day, accountability is simplifying rather than complicating. It is de-stressing rather than pressurising. It allows measurability and opens up communications so that we can focus on the task at hand rather than firing vaguely in the direction of the person we perceive should be responsible. Accountability allows us to seek solutions and support, highlighting the things that hold us back, and allowing us to remove those obstacles rather than remaining stunted by them. Accountability requires courage, openness, drive, ambition, creativity, and trust. The beautiful thing is that it encourages and grows all of these things rather than requiring that the exist in the first place.
Accountability is a powerful coming together rather than a singling out. It is an empowering swap for the lack of clarity we have without it. Accountability creates conversations that allow us, our teams and our undertakings to grow in the desired direction we choose and helps us remove the hurdles that slow our progress or stop us from getting there. Accountability is leadership of self first.
By Christen Killick
November 2nd, 2020