Why everyone needs an accountability partner
We live in a world where, increasingly, we are holding others to account - governments for decisions, corporations for paying ‘fair tax’, companies for environmental and social responsibilities etc. So why, in today’s world, am I struck by the lack of accountability for our own behaviour and our own health?
With Christmas around the corner, the headlines are full of attention-grabbing stories of drinking to excess. Last week I watched and listened to paramedics on the news talking about the fallout from the Christmas party season. It is also true that our NHS is creaking under the strain of increased demand and financial constraints. At the risk of sounding unpopular and I appreciate it’s a complex picture, many illnesses relate to lifestyle choices.
Two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children between 2-10yrs old are overweight or obese…. By 2034, 70 percent of adults are expected to be overweight or obese. This challenge will not go away. Annual spend on the treatment of obesity and diabetes is greater than the amount spent on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined. (Source: Public Health England 31.03.17)
Accountability means we take responsibility for our own actions, our choices and our behaviour.
It matters because it drives results, drives trust and creates empowerment and passion. In business, you often hear talk of a culture of accountability and there are some excellent examples of organisations that do this well. That said, in my experience, these examples are in the minority. Many workplaces value accountability and talk a good game but in reality, they either micromanage (people who micromanage may think they are keeping a close eye on things, in reality, they are taking away responsibility – a key part of accountability) or they fail to hold people to account, often due to a reluctance to have honest ‘difficult’ conversations.
If people don’t deliver, don’t take responsibility for their actions, aren’t allowed to fail and aren’t given quality honest feedback then it creates a potentially toxic culture of mistrust, frustration, blame, leniency and even apathy. And when people don’t trust each other this has a negative impact on levels of productivity, engagement and morale. Just by way of an example, how many of you copy the world and his dog into an e-mail just so you’ve covered your backside?
Why do people struggle to hold themselves and others to account?
If we’re honest it’s easy to fall into the blame trap. We’ve all been there, right? “I didn’t know … It just happened! … I can’t because … I’ll see what happens... Someone else let me down … Others don’t deliver …” and the list goes on. These are all victim behaviours, in this place we are powerless. And yet this is a comfortable place for us to be, with the majority of people living their lives in this space. Why? I believe this place gives us permission to ignore and/or to convince ourselves that we have no or little choice in our decisions, actions and behaviours. Wrong.
One of the frequent questions I get asked is “How do I hold others to account? They just don’t deliver.” Yet when asked about the consequences of not delivering or what feedback they’ve given, I’m met with silence. People often lack the ability and/or confidence to hold difficult conversations, accepting ‘excuses’ is an easier path. My belief is, as a society we are too scared to hold people to account for fear of offending, upsetting or being perceived as non-PC. This is unhelpful.
Moving to a position of accountability
“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.” Molière
The people whom I work with know I will often ask “Are you driving the bus or are you a passenger?” We have a choice about how we live our lives. We can be honest with ourselves, both the good, the bad and the ugly. We can recognise, we alone are responsible for our choices, our actions and our behaviour. And we can choose to ‘own’ issues, take personal responsibility, overcome barriers and find solutions to make stuff happen! These are accountable behaviours, in this place we are powerful.
It is not an easy place to be, it takes grit, determination and tenacity to get and stay there. It also requires real honesty, holding a mirror up and recognising who you are and choose to be (warts and all) can be painful. It also requires us to admit when we make mistakes (life would be dull if we were all perfect, right?!). So, take a moment to reflect on where you spend the majority of your time, are you driving the bus or are you a passenger?
As managers and leaders in business, you cannot credibly hold others to account without holding yourself accountable first. On many an occasion I have seen leaders/managers fall short in this area, often resorting to ‘blaming others’ or worse publicly talking about “mistakes we made”. Where is the accountability in this?!
For me, holding myself accountable is the hardest bit. I get it, I know it, yet there are still times I need an ‘accountability partner/buddy’ to keep me on track. That’s why personal trainers, slimming clubs, coaches etc. exist – people pay money so that others can essentially hold them to account! So, here’s my suggestion, find yourself an accountability partner – a friend, a co-worker, a LinkedIn connection etc. Then honestly (i) share where you are and why you’re there, (ii) share what change(s) you want to make, and (iii) agree how you will check in and be held to account. It works well where there’s a mutually beneficial relationship i.e. you hold each other to account.
Holding others accountable
A few tips for holding people accountable:
- Be clear about expectations and check for understanding and commitment. What is it that you need people to do / to deliver / to achieve and why is it important (for the organisation and for them personally)? What does success look like? Without clarity (and I have seen this all too often) the outcomes do not match expectations and it gets very messy!
- Check they have the capability to meet expectations. Do they have the required: skills; resources; autonomy; budget; time etc. to meet the expectation? What support, if any, do they require?
- Measure progress and outcomes in a timely manner. For larger activities provide clear milestones and check in on progress at agreed points.
- Provide timely feedback which is open and honest. Where expectations have been met or exceeded ensure positive feedback is given. Where expectations have not been met call it out, ask them what they could have done differently to meet expectations and identify learning.
- Ensure there are clear consequences (this is the one for me which is often missing). Explain the impact of not delivering for themselves, for others and for the business. A simple example, turning up 5 minutes late to a meeting with 8 other participants’ means the meeting is delayed starting and the business has lost 45 minutes of time. There may be some real tangible consequences e.g. linked to a bonus. I find looking at someone directly (no stalker staring) and having these conversations really powerful.
- Lead by example you can’t hold others to account if you don’t deliver on your personal commitments, answer for the outcomes of your decisions and behaviours, admit to mistakes and give feedback, even when it’s difficult to do so.
So, I think it’s time to be brave, to call out and hold ourselves, our colleagues and our society to account. Let’s stop living life passively and take accountability for everything that happens in our own world. My belief is doing the hard stuff (because it’s not always easy) creates a better place for us all.