Your team has a lot to accomplish, so you can’t afford to have anyone on board who consistently lets their colleagues down. You need individuals who understand their responsibilities and feel obligated to deliver — a team full of people who feel accountable. But building an accountable team is easier said than done.
You can’t make someone else accountable; accountability is a feeling. Sure, you could use incentives to try to coerce them into caring. Or you could use threats, penalties, or the stink eye to make it more likely they’ll feel responsible (you certainly wouldn’t be the only one to try). Unfortunately, our typical language and metaphors for accountability evoke this kind of punitive approach.
Your challenge is to create accountability using compassion instead of fear. When you’re a compassionate manager, your team knows that struggle is allowed, understood, and even embraced. As an empathetic manager, you flex what you expect when the situation warrants. But as with most leadership behaviors, you can have too much of a good thing; overdoing it on compassion misses the point that being kind isn’t always nice. So, how do you find that elusive blend of accountability and compassion? Here are some techniques to instill in your team the sense that they can be simultaneously vulnerable and responsible.
How to Foster Accountability While Demonstrating Compassion
Set Clear Expectations
It all starts with creating clear and shared expectations. If you short-change the upfront dialogue and fail to answer the why, what, and who questions, you’ll likely find that the outputs your employees deliver will miss the mark. Then you’ll be forced to intervene after your team has invested time and energy, which can be demoralizing (not to mention inefficient).
Instead, foster accountability through clear expectations. One tip: Clear expectations are adjective-free. Adjectives are slippery, slimy clarity-killers. It’s hard for your direct reports to take accountability for being innovative, timely, or collaborative when those words conjure vastly different images to each of you. Substitute nouns and verbs in place of adjectives, so “collaborative” becomes “make sure to get marketing’s assessment of the opportunity and incorporate it in your analysis.” Setting expectations is your best approach to creating proactive rather than punitive accountability.
The next step is to add processes and tools to keep everyone’s focus on progress. Knowing that everyone on the team has visibility into progress (or lack thereof) can enhance accountability. If your team is physically together, you can make use of a command center where you post visual reminders of commitments and track delivery of milestones. If you’re a remote or hybrid team, you can switch to digital roadmaps, progress trackers, or whiteboards as touchstones. Don’t stop at increased visibility; instead, review your tracking in one-on-ones and team meetings and use it as an opportunity to surface any concerns or looming issues.
Create Psychological Safety
Regardless of how precisely you set expectations and how well you monitor progress, you shouldn’t expect perfection. The next step in promoting accountability is to create a psychologically safe space for employees to share their struggles.
When perfection is the only option, some employees might feel incapable of taking accountability. If, instead, you invite your team to share their difficulties, you get the opportunity to coach and guide them toward a clear understanding of the problem and a set of viable solutions. But watch out: Guiding is helpful, whereas solving their problems for them erodes accountability rather than strengthening it because it teaches your employees that they don’t have to be accountable because you will be. What’s worse is that coming to your team members’ rescue can leave the impression that you don’t trust them, so now you’ve eroded accountability and compassion in one fell swoop! So instead of trying to avoid the discomfort, encourage them to work through it by saying something like, “I agree that this is our most difficult launch ever. That’s why I put you on it. Can you take me through some of what you’re grappling with?” The secret is acknowledging their difficulties while demonstrating that you’re confident they can deliver.
Be a Coach, Not a Micromanager
Although you need to be careful not to provide answers or dictate how your employees should complete their tasks, you want to give a perspective they can’t get on their own. Just make sure that your feedback comes in a series of minor course corrections rather than a dump of disappointment or disdain. As you coach each employee, your primary responsibility is to guide their attention rather than dictate how they should work. Ask questions that allow them to interrogate their approach and teach them to spot their own assumptions or to play out alternate scenarios. Help them see the unintended impacts of their approach. In the previous example, you might guide them by saying, “I feel like the most important thing in this launch is getting the right pilot region. You have the West Coast first in your current plan, and I’m worried about how our big East Coast accounts will react. How are you thinking about the criteria for where you’ll launch first?”
Use Appropriate Consequences
Sometimes leaders are surprised to hear that I encourage them to use consequences as a fundamental part of learning. The caveat is that you should be on the lookout for beneficial, constructive behaviors so that most consequences you dole out are positive and reinforcing (like acknowledgment, rewards, or greater responsibility). Then, when necessary, use negative consequences that you’ve tailored to the situation. Start with relatively innocuous interventions (such as increasing the number of milestones for someone who is missing deadlines), and if you don’t see a change in their behavior, escalate the consequences accordingly. And remember, while consequences are essential, compassion means recognizing the situations where no action is required on your part because the person’s disappointment and discomfort are consequence enough.
When All Else Fails, Allow for a Graceful Exit
Finally, I’ll share the most counterintuitive advice of all: Compassionate leaders understand that sometimes the kindest thing you can do is release someone who isn’t performing. That’s because teams have social dynamics, and once an individual has lost your confidence, it’s often obvious to their colleagues that they’re in trouble. That sets up an untenable situation where they lose the confidence of the group and therefore have little chance of succeeding. In that situation, it’s best to channel your compassion into helping the person make a graceful exit and supporting them as they look for a new role.
It’s a tricky balance to promote accountability for business outcomes while demonstrating kindness to individuals. The secret is to over-index on clear expectations and then provide frequent, low-impact coaching and feedback to give your team members assistance without ever transferring ownership. It’s a winning formula for a happy, healthy, and productive team.