The 3 Habits of Accountability

Authored by

Chris Weller
Effective leadership requires thinking ahead, owning commitments, and anchoring on solutions.

Before the pandemic, many organizations placed a strong emphasis on results: meeting deadlines, hitting targets, and growing revenues. But as the pandemic forced millions of employees into their homes, cultures began to shift. Over a year, as COVID-19 spread and the murder of George Floyd ignited a wave of corporate action around diversity, equity, and inclusion, results began to take a backseat to a focus on people.

Now, post-pandemic, many companies have returned to the office, whether fully in-person or in a hybrid approach. Some companies have retained the culture of niceness they developed during the pandemic, quicker to let people off the hook on outcomes. Others, meanwhile, have largely left their COVID cultures in the past and have put results back in the crosshairs.

This shift has created tension within organizations that want to create accountability while still focusing on people’s well-being, according to a recent article by Dr. David Rock, Dr. Emma Sarro, and Chris Weller in Harvard Business Review. Many leaders are now asking, “What does accountability look like?” Given the difficulty of building accountability and the perceived risks of alienating people by being too results-oriented, it’s not surprising that 82% of managers say they either try but fail or avoid accountability altogether.

We believe leaders need better habits — and our research over the past year indicates there are three cognitive skills that create a healthy form of accountability within teams.

Accountability as a worthy challenge

It turns out there are two kinds of accountability, and which one leaders cultivate determines how people will feel and perform. First, there’s punitive accountability. This is the form we’re most familiar with. When people don’t meet expectations, they’re punished and told to do better next time. But there’s also an empowered form of accountability that sees tasks as a worthy challenge and an opportunity to adopt a growth mindset. Challenges are seen as opportunities to improve rather than potential threats to one’s status.

Leaders should strive to frame accountability as a worthy challenge, and they can build it within their teams through three key habits: thinking ahead, owning commitments, and anchoring on solutions.

Think ahead

When leaders give their employees a set of tasks, they may think they’re being clear or that the expectations are obvious. But, a great deal of research has demonstrated a “false consensus effect,” in which people think they’re on the same page but actually interpret things differently.

Creating accountability means avoiding this cognitive trap, and thinking ahead is one tool for doing so. Leaders should work hard to mentalize, or predict, the ways an employee might understand what’s expected of them. That way, the leader can give their directive in a way that paints a clear picture, with less ambiguity, of how they’d like the task done.

Thinking ahead is the first step in creating accountability because it brings the successful outcome to life in both the leader’s and employee’s minds before any actions are taken. The right intentions can turn into the right behaviors.

Own your commitments

The second factor in how accountable employees feel for their responsibilities is how much the team’s leader owns their commitments. Modeling plays an enormous role in culture building overall. Accountability, in particular, depends on whether people feel like their leader practices what they preach.

When employees are told to do one thing and see their leaders doing another, the mismatched expectations can register as a threat. The brain must then divert precious energy from focusing on key tasks to process the error that violated the person’s expectations. They may lose respect for their manager and come to believe their commitments aren’t so important after all.

Anchor on solutions 

A hallmark of growth mindset is treating failure as a chance to improve rather than a sign of incompetence. When teams fail to adopt a growth mindset, they’re more likely to shame and blame one another when things go wrong.

Healthy accountability requires a focus on solutions rather than harping on how people messed up. It means creating a climate of psychological safety that enables people to admit their mistakes and then move on to make things right. When things calm down, leaders may debrief the team to go over what went right and wrong, but in the moment, the best way to stay accountable is to make room for grace and get the job done.

When leaders practice these three habits, they can build teams whose members know what’s expected of them, feel empowered to embrace challenges, and support one another in their pursuit of success.

A version of this article appears in Harvard Business Review. To read the full article, click here.

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