I’m a daughter, wife, mom, leader/manager at work. All of these roles require me to be accountable. We hear the word often in professional settings, but it’s often with negative overtones. Employees must be 'accountable' for the outcome but only receive accolades for a positive outcome. Most staff members cringe when the leader uses the word 'accountable' because it’s never used in a positive way. Usually the word gets whipped out when something has gone wrong, or when a reprimand is occurring.
Here are some of the phrases heard when the term 'accountable' is used: "Well, s/he needs to be held accountable" "Why didn’t you hold them accountable?" "Aren’t you accountable for the team and its outcome?”
The key issue is that people are often held accountable without being empowered. We neuter people and teams by tying their hands behind them while holding them to unreasonable outcomes. Then when said outcome is not achieved we then beat them with the accountability belt for failing to achieve the impossible. Just in case you are wondering … this is not good or effective management, let alone leadership.
In 2014, I became accountable for my Mom who has dementia. I remember asking doctors and the State for help to no avail. Then one day, her doctor called me quite irate because my mother, was not being compliant with her meds. I took a deep breath. I had to remind myself that this was a doctor, not a trained management professional who understood the basics of empowerment. So I calmly asked her HOW was I to hold my mother compliant when I didn’t have the resources or the tools to do so. Once she understood my needs, she was able to give me resources that would help me to help my mother as well as her in achieving the goal of my mother’s overall health. Fast forward to 2019 and I now am able to take full accountability for my mother’s health, because I partner with her health providers to give her the best care. How was this possible? I was empowered as her Health surrogate and legal representative who had a much better understanding of what I needed to do to help her as well as navigate the purgatory that is the US health landscape.
I am a great proponent of using daily life as a metaphor for how to handle and manage leadership and management tasks. It was the experience with my Mom which became an eye opener for me. I began to ask myself some hard questions. Was I empowering my team to outcomes for which they could be accountable? Did I give my team the tools and resources they needed? Was I supporting them with positive feedback to get to the outcome? Once I looked hard at myself, I realized I wasn’t. I who knew how key empowerment was to success had failed to do this basic thing. It is never easy to admit failure. But admit to failure I did and then rapidly changed my approach to the team.
Empowerment and Accountability are intrinsically linked. You cannot have one without the other. So remember two things when working with individuals and teams.
First, ensure you use the tenets of Servant Leadership as you assign goals and tasks. The team needs to have the tools, power, authority and resources to achieve the outcome. You need to know that they have the skills, knowledge and experience to accomplish the goal and trust that they have good judgment as they move the projects and tasks forward. These two ingredients equal EMPOWERMENT.
Finally, when the goals and tasks are accomplished, remember to recognize the work and effort put forward. Use the word accountable in a positive way so that other teams see accountability as an achievable goal within the culture of your organization.