What I Am Learning About Accountability

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Lack of accountability is a problem in many areas of society, not just business. People violate expectations on a daily basis. Many of them are small abuses of etiquette and courtesy. Things like cutting in line or talking in a theater. Others are more serious violations of company policy or the public trust.

Leaders are not immune from accountability issues. Their bad behaviors can corrupt an entire organization. When a leader fails to model the values, or expected behaviors in a workplace, why should anyone else?

Most of us fail to speak up when we observe egregious conduct. One reason is to avoid a potential argument or emotional outburst. Another is the perceived danger associated with “calling someone out”, especially a work peer. No one wants to be viewed as the bad guy.

This posture of silent suffering is costly. It impacts productivity. Repeated violations encourage others to disregard the rules. It takes an emotional toll. People avoid those they perceive as bullies. It distorts the truth. Over time everyone loses their perspectives on the initial problem and preferred behaviors.

Accountability issues rarely include just one concern. When a co-worker shows up late for the third time in a week, the problem isn’t just her tardiness. You could address the pattern of behavior, how it impacts customer service, or that you are struggling to trust her. Choosing the right problem to discuss is not as easy as first appears.

Confronting the bad behavior is just as challenging. I often feel pressured by time constraints. Sometimes I can’t let go of my emotional response to what happened. One technique that helps me is tailoring the conversation to the timeline of events.

The first time the problem shows up, I focus on what happened and how it violated the rules, code of conduct, or my own expectations.

The second time I observe the same bad behavior, my conversation shifts. Instead of discussing what happened, I point out the pattern and how this cycle of behavior is having a negative impact.

If nothing changes, or there is some improvement followed by a relapse, it’s time to discuss how their actions are affecting our working relationship. Broken promises make it harder to trust them. Continued poor performance makes me doubt they can do the job.

A lack of accountability always has consequences so use that to focus the conversation. On some occasions, you may question the person’s intentions (or your perception of them) and that creates a different response.

My journey with understanding accountability continues. It’s hard to practice confronting others, especially those closest to you. The alternative is an unhealthy combination of biting my tongue or having an emotional meltdown. I’m pretty sure neither of those approaches will solve the problem. So, I keep practicing, learning, and practicing some more.

I welcome your own insights and stories about what you are doing to hold yourself and others accountable.

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Ken Byler is Principal and Founder of Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC, a Souderton, Pennsylvania firm that has provided leadership training, coaching, and facilitation services since 2002. He is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, and PXT Select™ all registered trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.