In government service the word “accountability” has come to mean one thing: somebody needs to be punished. We see it all the time–articles in the paper, stories on the news–so-and-so “should be held accountable” usually means somebody needs to be fired.
The word is so highly charged that most people will RUN from anything that seems remotely related to accountability. But, we know that personal and organizational efficiency and effectiveness require accountability in order to thrive.
Over the course of our professional careers, we’ve been taught that the way to get something done is to “punish” someone for not doing it and to get it done better or faster next time, ignore or criticize whatever was accomplished because “it could always be better”.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Imagine a young child going out to his or her little league game. The child steps up to the plate, gets ready to swing, and the coach says, “You better get it right this time or you’re in big trouble”. With that resounding encouragement (insert sarcastic tone), the youngster hits the ball, and gets all the way to second base. The coach then yells at the child, “It’s about time you hit that ball. What took you so long? Second base was the best you could do (sneer)? You should’ve hit a home run. You’ve still got a loooong way to go, buddy, because nothing counts until you get to home plate”. How excited or enthusiastic do you think that child is going to be about the rest of the game…or baseball in general?
I’m not saying you or your colleagues are children. I am saying that we all retain elements of that old internal programing. As adults, we use a grown-up version of the same dialogue in an attempt to keep ourselves, and often others, on track. Then we wonder why we’re burned out, frustrated, and pissed off.
Clearly this definition of accountability isn’t actually getting us the results we were looking for. How do we know? We keep having the same problems.
So, how do we create accountability that works?
Accountability that works has 3 key components to it:
1. It is POSITIVE. Yes, you read that right. When operating from greatness, every step, every action, is cause for celebration. Yes, even celebrating failure. (A topic for another day.) The accomplishment of an intermediate milestone, the recognition that a project is dramatically off-track and needs a course correct, or a team member asking for support because he needs something to move the project forward, are all worthy of celebration. What went well to reach this point? Celebrate that! (No, I’m not talking about an office party. A “nice job” or 5-second Happy Dance will suffice.)
When we begin to focus on what went well FIRST, the conversations around improvement come from a foundation of “I wonder if/how…” as opposed to “shoulda/coulda/woulda”. That simple change in “come from” opens up a whole new level of creativity, commitment, and energy.
Celebrating progress is a key component of the weekly Intention Lab I hold with my private clients. The process is very simple. Fix a time in your calendar WEEKLY to capture what went well since last week.
2. It is FREELY CHOSEN. In the workplace the “accountability structure” is often dictated to you. Sometimes it motivates and encourages, most often it demoralizes and shuts down.
While you may or may not be able to shift the processes of your organization just yet, you can, and must, create an accountability system that works for you. Do you need a GANT chart or does a simple desk calendar and day planner work for you? How will you celebrate the incremental progress? (See Item 1 above.) What are your resistance patterns (those internal things that get in the way of you making progress)? Who can you turn to when things aren’t going the way you’d hoped?
This is why it is so important for you to choose your own accountability partner, otherwise known as a “Get-er-done” Buddy. And before you go looking for that partner, be sure you read key #3.
3. It is NON-JUDGEMENTAL. What?!? Yes, non-judgemental. The whole point of accountability is to keep you moving TOWARD a desired outcome. When some outside event changes your data set, or your internal programming starts getting you in your own way, criticism, skepticism, and coercion are not the things that are going to get you moving forward again. Who can you trust to help you spot your resistance patterns and move through them?
Note: Neither you nor your boss are good candidates for this role. By definition, your boss has a vested interest in your progress so he/she cannot be neutral. Plus, you have a vested interest in your boss’s opinion so you are unlikely to hear what you need to hear in a useful way. And while many of us can spot our own resistance patterns, we are anything but NON-JUDGEMENTAL about them. Self-flagellation generally does more harm than good.
When you build this kind of accountability for yourself, great things get done. So what do you need in order do that?