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Personal Mastery: Accountability Part One

The dictionary tells us that accountability is equivalent to responsibility. Being accountable means doing what you say you are going to do. If you can’t get it done, you own up to it and make it right. Interestingly, the dictionary also provides and example of the word used in context: “their lack of accountability has eroded public respect.”

In politics, a lack of accountability has sadly become par for the course. We expect politicians to routinely declare goals they will never achieve. While we may tolerate it in the public square, a lack of accountability in an organization or on a team corrodes both trust and performance over time. Eventually, high-performance goals can no longer be achieved because the muscle of accountability has atrophied.

We’ve been talking about tough conversations over the last few weeks. The ability to confront a lack of accountability is one of the most necessary skills a leader develops. And accountability may be owned by a single individual or team; it may be shared across several organizations and many people. Nevertheless, once goals are established and commitments are made, someone must be held accountable for delivering against them - and called out when delivery falls short.

Many of the tools and processes we’ve discussed in this newsletter are designed to help a leader establish aspirational but achievable goals, ensure the right resources and people are focused on delivery, the right metrics are in place to track progress and the surrounding culture supports those behaviors necessary to accomplish what’s required. What happens when all this is in place, when all the right commitments have been made and then it just doesn’t happen? What happens when people simply don’t do what they said they would do?

Confrontation is required. The tough conversation must occur. “You are accountable. You have failed to deliver. You must course-correct and make it right.”

The responses to this declaration are myriad and predictable.

  • “Circumstances have changed.”
  • “I/we didn’t understand.”
  • “We never agreed.”
  • “Someone else that I/we rely upon didn’t deliver.”
  • “The goal was never realistic.”
  • “I/we don’t have sufficient resources, there’s too much on the plate already.”

Every single one of these defenses can be true. Each needs to be addressed systematically and we’ll talk over the next couple of weeks about how to do so. Nevertheless, none of these defenses can distract a leader from the fundamental requirement to remind and reinforce that once accountability is established, delivery against commitments is expected and required.

Why? Because as the dictionary reminds us, when people observe a consistent failure to do what was committed, it erodes respect - in the leader, in an organization’s capabilities and ambitions, in one another. A lack of trust develops. People conclude they cannot count on each other, or their leadership, and so rather than work together to achieve more, they hunker down and do what they’ve always done. And there are real performance consequences.

In every organization, there are always people or teams who will jump in and do double-duty to try and make up for a failure of accountability elsewhere. While these heroics may help in the short-term, they are damaging over time. Rather than building the new strength or capability which higher-performance demands, we’re relying on the same people and capacity we’ve always had. The organization doesn’t get stronger and better.

In other cases, when goals are routinely established and missed, people conclude they can choose to ignore many declarations and goals. Wait long enough and it will all “blow over.” That Strategic Plan we labored over? Never mind, we’ll forget about it soon enough and return to what we were already doing anyway.

Failure to hold people and organizations accountable is corrosive over time. Lack of accountability must be called out, confronted and corrective action taken.

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