Last week was the closest I’ve come to feeling productive since the Covid lockdown began. One reason was that I got to work with an amazing group of leaders from a fast-growing fintech company in Austin. They are really in the swing with virtual meetings and were undaunted by having to move their planned 2-day leader forum online. In fact, they seemed more energized at the end of the 2-days than at the beginning.

While in a normal speech, I can gauge receptivity, interest, and energy from the body language, that was harder over video. Thankfully, these leaders filled in the blanks by chiming in or using the chat to reinforce things I was saying. As a speaker, it was amazing!! This week, I decided to take my cue from them and share one of the ideas that they thought was important.

Pass the Accountability Baton

We were talking about how to get high performance from a team, both in normal times, and especially during remote work. We were focused on the idea of accountability. Accountability is something people talk about often, but most of the time, their mindset around accountability is counterproductive.

A person is accountable when they feel profoundly their obligations and behave in a way to deliver on those obligations.

Accountability is an internal state, not something you can make someone feel, or feel on their behalf. If you want to increase someone’s accountability, you need them to feel more responsible—not you! Saying, “I’m going to make you accountable” is not going to work.

Actually, trying to make someone accountable might be even worse than doing nothing. Misguided managers who drive too hard for a culture of accountability inadvertently make people feel less responsible.

Maybe an example from home illustrates the point best. You are raising a child, hoping to send a responsible human being out into the world. Said child has homework, soccer practice, and chores to do around the house. When you notice the kid is playing video games rather than doing their homework, you go to their room and confiscate their device and tell them not to come out until the homework is done. When they are about to walk out the door without their cleats, you run after them and stuff the shoes in the gym bag. Now, tell me, who is the accountable one? Have you made your kid more or less accountable with your actions? Yup. Sorry about that.

You need to pass the accountability baton.

How We Hold on to Accountability

It’s not just as parents that we hang on to accountability when we’re trying to pass it to others. Managers do it all the time. As you hover, check-in, and micromanage, you’re not making them accountable, you’re just showing them that you are. You’ll worry about it, so they don’t have to.

How to Pass Accountability

You pass accountability by letting the person feel the full weight of their obligation. You share the expectation, ask them to express their understanding, and go back and forth until you have a shared understanding. (Note: failing to set expectations properly at the outset means you have a delegation problem rather than them having an accountability problem. More on how to delegate properly, here.)

Then, let them own the task and the consequences if they don’t complete the task. Don’t tell them what to do. Ask questions and let them struggle to figure out their response. Let them test the limits and see what works and what doesn’t. Wait for them to ask for help when they need it.

I’m not saying you need to do this all at once. I’m not saying that you drop a pile of multi-million-dollar projects on the intern’s desk and walk away. Just like I wouldn’t recommend telling your kindergartener on the first day of school that, “You’re a big boy now, so you’re going to have to figure out how to do this school thing. There are groceries in the fridge, go make your lunch.”

I am saying that you have to walk away at some point and let the person sit with their responsibilities if you ever want them to feel like they own them. If not, they’ll only feel like they’re minding your accountabilities for a bit while you tend to other things.

And yes, it’s possible that they won’t deliver.

You cannot pass accountability if you are not prepared for some degree of non-compliance and the associated consequences. If you don’t like consequences, you won’t get accountability.

But by consequences, I’m not talking about punishment. Punishment is a dangerous game. A little goes a long way. Too much punishment and you create learned helplessness, which is another (more tragic and harder to reverse) form of low accountability. Instead of punishment, create accountability through natural consequences as much as possible. Consequences that aren’t contrived, they just flow from the failure to deliver.

If the person was supposed to be accountable for building out a presentation to the team and they don’t get it done, don’t cover for them. Let them tell their colleagues that it’s not ready. They don’t have to deliver a Shakespearean tragic monologue, but they do need to admit that they failed to deliver, to feel the heat, and to let the peer pressure sink in.

Just like the kid who arrives at soccer practice without cleats might have to sit out.

If a person doesn’t naturally take accountability, you are not going to change that without consequences. Positive consequences for them delivering. Negative consequences for not delivering. For accountability to really take hold, sometime a ball might have to drop. If you’re not prepared for that, you’re not ready to foster accountability. If you like accountability, you can’t dislike consequences.

The Fake

One more thought…

In some cases, managers look as if they’re about to pass the accountability baton, but at the last minute, they pull it back. I see this a lot when people are giving feedback.

You describe the person’s behavior, masterfully translating from judgment into the objective behaviors you saw or heard. You share the impact of the behavior and communicate clearly the consequences if the behavior continues. You ask an open-ended question to engage the person and pivot them toward an action plan. It’s a work of art so far.

And then…. Wait, no, don’t do it!… Yup, before the recipient can feel the full weight of the feedback. Before they can struggle with what to do with it. Before they take ownership of the problem and formulate a plan for what to do with it. Before any of that accountability can really kick in, you pull back the baton, “Let me know what I can do?” or worse, “I will do x, y, and z.” NOOooooooo!!!!! You were SO close! But now you’ve still got the accountability baton in your hand. That’s not going to work with someone who is accountability shy. For them, it’s a near miss. Dodged a bullet. Phew! Got off scot-free!

Ultimately, fostering accountability in others (that’s the best you can do, you can foster accountability) requires that you are clear about what you expect, that you leave room for the person to accomplish it or not, and that you allow the natural consequences of non-performance to provide the lessons.

Who’s holding the baton on your team?