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Can we Really Hold Others Accountable?

I hear this phrase in workplaces everyday – we need to hold x accountable!  Accountability, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, means an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.  By that definition we can’t actually hold people accountable.  We can blame them, assign responsibility, and give them feedback, but that doesn’t make them accountable. Maybe by focusing on helping others accept responsibility or own the results of their behavior we will have more success than focusing on ‘holding’ others accountable.

Trying to hold others accountable often takes us to blaming, criticizing or victim/villain/hero dynamics. Blame, shame and guilt all come from a fear-based perspective.  Fear leads others to protect ourselves, hide mistakes or point fingers elsewhere.  Working from a place of fear will not give optimal results.

So how can we encourage others to accept responsibility?  Often by setting a good example and taking full responsibility for our own actions, especially as leaders.  In blaming cultures we hear questions like:
•    Who did that?
•    Why did that happen?
•    What is the root cause?
•    Who dropped the ball?
•    Who is going to fix it?

Can we commit to curiosity rather than always trying to be right? Shifting to a curiosity lens might bring up questions such as:

  • What do we really want for this situation?
  • What do we need to learn from this situation?
  • How can we work together to get a new and better outcome?
  • How can we grow and shift to where we want to be with this?
  • What do we see as our challenges?  Our opportunities?

Shifting to curiosity doesn’t mean we don’t set clear expectations or help others understand the goals and importance of the work they do and how it ties into the larger picture. We can still share the impact of actions on the project or team without blame.

What might our responsibilities be?  Check in to see how team members are progressing, where they might need further support, how they can brainstorm ways to get back on track or reimagine the goal.   Help them define the challenges and opportunities? Provide honest feedback gently and ensure measurement methods are clear.   You will likely have much more success working to encourage others to take responsibility rather than holding them accountable.

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