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Often, leaders we work with demand more accountability for people with whom they work. “We need to start holding people accountable,” they tell us. Such comments are often accompanied by complaints of individuals or teams within the organization who are underperforming or falling short of the perceived standard. Accountability is a tool to get people to comply. It carries the idea that there will be consequences for underperformance: punishment; counseling; loss of pay or privileges; maybe someone will even get fired. In the military, this might be a “stern talking-to behind the milvan [shipping container].” Accountability is a tool, but it should be used only as a last resort.

Accountability is a Crutch.

Some leaders use accountability as a crutch to put the blame for substandard performance on others. Rather than threaten to hold people accountable, it is far better to create a culture where the team understands why high standards of performance must be maintained—and what is at stake if standards slip. Such a team will hold themselves accountable. When people are threatened with punishment, they will likely perform to the expected standard only while the boss looks over their shoulder. But as soon as the boss is elsewhere, they go back to doing what they’ve always done. If people understand WHY it’s important, how it will benefit the team, and benefit them, or the negative consequences to the team and the mission, they are far more likely to hold themselves accountable without any oversight from their chain of command.

Instead of Focusing on Others, Focus on Yourself

In Extreme Ownership, we wrote: “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.” A leader must hold the standards of performance high. If you tolerate substandard performance and there are no consequences, then that substandard performance becomes the new standard. But the hardest place to apply this—and the most important—is in yourself. What do you tolerate in yourself that you shouldn’t? When you start to let things slip, that can become a slippery slope and your own substandard performance becomes the new standard.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Instead of threatening to hold people accountable, hold yourself accountable for not explaining why the standards of performance, or the process, or the safety procedures, or whatever thing that people are working on is important, and what the consequences are for getting it wrong.

Create a Culture Where People Hold Themselves Accountable

Far more powerful than you, or your boss holding people accountable, is to build a culture where people hold themselves accountable. When you take ownership of your team’s or someone else’s underperformance and explain the why, provide support, training, and guidance, you will create a team of leaders at every level who hold themselves accountable.

Real-World example:

“We need to start holding people accountable for not getting the job done,” a frontline leader told us. This leader was frustrated with a team in another department who wasn’t delivering.

“Do you think they are purposefully underperforming?” I asked him. He didn’t answer but paused to think. “That’s pretty rare,” I continued. “In most cases, I find that people who are underperforming are overtasked, under-resourced, or unclear about what the highest priority tasks are. They may just not understand how what they do impacts the rest of the team and the strategic mission.”

“That’s probably true in this case,” the leader admitted, after some thought. He resolved to take ownership of the situation and developed a plan to help the team in the other department. Instead of holding them accountable, he held himself accountable and implemented a solution to get the problem solved.

For Action:

Determine one area this week where you have been frustrated with someone. Instead of holding them accountable, hold yourself accountable to better communicate with them, support them, or provide them with greater guidance and resources. EXECUTE.

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