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Why leaders need a more humanistic approach to accountability

Dive into the epidemic of underperformance driven by accountability issues and discover a revolutionary approach to accountability reset.

Activity but no progress, meetings with no follow up, confused responsibilities, impossible demands, missed milestones, low morale, poor engagement, talent drain—does this sound familiar?

These are the symptoms of an epidemic of underperformance that’s driven by issues with accountability. From broken promises and unrealistic expectations to finger pointing and cultures of avoidance and blame, accountability issues—and the fear that drives them—are a challenge for HR leaders everywhere.

The missing piece

We all have accountability expectations every day, many of which are so deeply embedded in our social structures that we barely give them a thought. And maybe that’s the issue right there. As a result, we’re also not intentional and focused about how we meet or navigate these expectations, which leads to underperformance in both our professional and personal lives.

Because without accountability, nothing sticks: not your latest transformational change initiative, not your best talent, nothing. Without accountability, poor-quality work, decisions and leadership go unchallenged, and ‘ethical slip’ starts to happen. Without accountability, leaders, teams and organisations fall behind as the scale of disruption, complexity of change, and pace of technological advancement increase. Without accountability, we waste time, money and energy in a fog of confusion and dysfunctional, drama-filled relationships.

Things get worse without anyone knowing why, or accepting the accountability to do something about it. The result is pervasive fragility that shows up as anxiety, stress and underperformance across all layers and levels of society as traditional approaches to leadership fail us.

The Problem

To be better at it, we need to reset how we think about accountability— to understand and engage with it from a completely different perspective so that it is easier to do with both ourselves and others.

The central issue is that too often, we hold people to account from a place of power and control: we storm in, waving our accountability processes and systems around like weapons, looking to scare everyone into submission. Or, we can take a more passive-aggressive approach, in which, armed with our pointy ‘should’ finger, we name, blame and shame – and it’s not only others who get the ‘should’ finger pointed at them: we can just as often turn the blame upon ourselves.

The problem is that in both scenarios, accountability is weaponised and used as a form of discipline. We are made to pay for our missteps and mistakes after they have been made, and often when there is little opportunity to do anything about it.

When we hold people – including ourselves – to account in this way, it’s based on a dominator power dynamic and the energy of fear. The best we can hope to achieve with this is compliance—but that compliance comes at the cost of people retreating into smaller and smaller spaces where they feel safe, and settling for underperformance for fear of risking failure. This creates fragility, and is far from the courageous creativity and inspiring innovation we need to meet the challenges and leverage the opportunities in the complex environments in which we, our teams, and our organisations operate.

The Opportunity to Reset

But what if, rather than holding people to account, we called them there? What if, rather than being used as a post-facto punishment for missteps and mistakes, accountability set us up for success from the beginning? What if, rather than being driven by fear, accountability became an act of love?

It sounds like a stretch, doesn’t it? But if we’re going to be better at accountability – and we need to be – this is where we need to go. To support ourselves and the people we lead to do their best work, we need to understand and accept that people don’t function like machines. Each of us is a living system that needs meaningful work and connection to consistently show up at their best. The shift from holding to calling resets the accountability dynamic to meet this need.

Here are five things that change as a consequence:

  1. This shift triggers changes in our brain and body, as it moves us out of fight-or-flight survival mode and towards confidence, connection and growth.
  2. As we begin to feel seen and known, our feelings of safety also increase, and our perspective changes from being ‘Me’- focused to looking outward, encompassing ‘We’ and ‘Us’.
  3. We move from operating ‘below the line’—where the culture is one of domination and competition, of ‘you’ versus ‘me’—to ‘above the line’, where we begin to understand the common experiences that connect us all, and a culture of partnering and collaboration has the possibility to grow.
  4. Understanding the perfectly imperfect nature of each of us allows us to let go of the need to be ‘on’ all the time—the need to always be right, to look good and be perfect. We’re willing to ask for help and acknowledge mistakes earlier and more easily, which saves drama down the line.
  5. We’re able and ok to bump up against the edges of our humanity, understand that learning comes through experience, and that only by showing up to do the work can we benefit, contribute, and learn forward so that we can get it more right next time.

More than performance

Make no mistake, this is no small task. We are moving from driving action through fear, consequences and systems, to inviting it through a human-centred approach founded in love and possibility.  It is about more than productivity and will result in more than accelerating progress and improving performance. Resetting accountability is an invitation to return to integrity and honour. It requires truth and honesty, vulnerability and strength, love and the courage to commit. Because, when it’s done from that place, accountability truly is an act of love. We are saying, ‘I see the greatness in you. You can play a bigger game.’ And that is leading, exceptionally.

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