Wouldn’t You Rather People Hold Each Other Accountable?

Since we just finished talking about feedback, let’s talk about a related and very important concept: accountability. If feedback is the gathering of information about the quality of performance, then accountability is what a person does with feedback.


There are two ways we can look at accountability. First, and most directly related to feedback, is the idea that members maintain the standard of excellence in their own work performance. They do a good job, one that produces the meaningful change for the customer. They do this because they choose to do so. This self-policing is often supported by performance management, training, and other traditional organizational authorities. This form of accountability is generally a straight line, and the previous article has seven tactics on how to use constant feedback to develop these patterns of behavior within your organization.


There is a second, more complex, and much more interesting form of accountability: shared accountability. This is when members hold each other to a standard of excellence. Group members interact in ways that identify mistakes, develop and implement solutions, and produce an increasing quality of the final product within the performance of others. When the habit of constant feedback becomes habitual, this form of shared accountability becomes possible and may even be the primary way that the group upholds the standard of excellence.


Shared accountability acts on the discomfort of learning in a very interesting way. It increases social or interpersonal pressure to learn and grow, which counteracts the discomfort of changing and creates a new discomfort about staying the same. Shared accountability is, in effect, positive punishment for not improving. However, this form of punishment is very useful, which is why the pressure is a positive organizational characteristic.


Unfortunately, most organizations do not have an environment in which shared accountability can take place. Human beings are hesitant to point out others’ failures because these behaviors often create negative emotion reactions. The formal responsibility of management diffuses or erases individual members’ feelings of responsibility for others’ performance. Members accept or normalize others’ low performance to justify their own slacking, and because they don’t see or care about the consequences. Members don’t call for excellence because they aren’t motivated by excellence, but by a fixed-value paycheck or simply getting through the day. The reasons are endless, but most organizations lack the necessary functional characteristics to create this kind of accountability.


Shared accountability requires all three functions of leadership to become an organizational practice. First, it is enabled by clear vision providing a standard of excellence, direct lines between individual contributions and the meaningful change, and the community of a shared goal. Next, it is supported by effective relationships that provide emotionally-supportive, task-enabling interactions where members can assess the group’s performance and failures without harming each other. These foundations of vision and relationships are absolutely critical to develop shared accountability.


Finally, shared accountability is performed through group implementation of the learning tools, whether used consciously or unconsciously. For example, members will work together to seek out new behaviors in the three places and will move through the learning cycle to accomplish behavioral change. When members have access to these tools individually, then they can begin applying them to others’ behaviors and to communal problems. The outputs of these tools increase in scope and impact as they are applied to group, rather than individual, problems. Group learning is more effective than individual learning, and shared accountability is one of the ways that an organization practices group learning.


This kind of shared accountability is a sign of high performing organization where the functions of leadership are effectively distributed among members of the group. When we see shared accountability in our group, we know that the functions of leadership are working well. We get there by creating the three functions in our group, using all of the tools we discuss here at ReDefine.


We don’t create shared accountability in a single moment, but rather it comes about as we build strong functions within the group and encourage members to distribute those functions among themselves. There are a few things we can do to encourage members to hold others’ accountable for the group’s performance.


Here are the top four things leaders do to encourage shared accountability:

  1. Communicate a clear story of vision that connects individual tasks to the meaningful change. Point out how learning and self-directed improvement contribute to excellence by including specific examples in the larger story of vision.

  2. Practice constant feedback. This both creates interchanges that gather information and deliver it to where it is needed for improvements and creates positive emotion relationships that support change and growth.

  3. Model giving and receiving feedback about outcomes as you perform constant feedback. Show them how the experience of feedback is part of improvement, and how to respond by seeking out new behaviors.

  4. Use the learning tools and make sure members know how to use them. Talk about where to find new ideas and how to work through the learning cycle. Recognize the frustrations of the learning markers and show how learning addresses the discomfort of change.


On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your performance at each of these tactics? Which ones are you doing well, which are you not doing at all, and which could you do better?


If you had to pick one to try tomorrow, what action would you take?

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