Avoid the Word: Accountability

October 22, 2010

“… and I’m holding you accountable.”

Quick, how does this phrase make you feel? Apprehensive? Uncomfortable?

For too many, the word accountable conjures up negative connotations. Why?

Accountability as a concept should simply be an “accounting” for reaching some goal, nothing more. But as a manager, it’s my own policy to stay away from uttering anything that sounds like “I’m holding you accountable.”

My rationale is simple: It comes across as a threat. There is nothing about that phrase that creates a positive outlook about the work or conveys trust in the individual who is about to carry out the work. In the software business, we need all the positive, can-do, creative energy that we can muster. I try to find ways to encourage and work with those who report to me, challenging them and guiding them by partnering with them as much as possible.

We don’t “hold people accountable” for being successful, do we? We recognize achievement through things like awards, bonuses, and promotions. Accountability only surfaces when there has been a failure to reach a goal or to accomplish some task. Used in advance of the work it becomes a threat, instilling fear of consequences and retribution for failure.

Yes, we all have goals and objectives. We need to exhibit certain behaviors and have specific competencies to be successful. Instead of accountability, I talk about expectations with my staff. We talk about what interests them, what will challenge them, and how they will go about the work –including acquiring any new knowledge or skills required to make them successful. Expectations create that positive, partnering context that I’m looking for.

Lyssa Adkins talked about setting expectations and holding people to those expectations in her book, Coaching Agile Teams: “Expecting high performance does not mean that you demand it. It means that you simply know achieving it is more than possible; it is normal. Expecting high performance means that you believe the team can attain it, so you hold them, compassionately and firmly, to that expectation.”

While Lyssa was talking about Agile teams, I believe that the approach holds true for individuals as well.

Once we’ve established and agreed upon expectations, I don’t cast people adrift, waiting to see how they fare and “holding them accountable” for any failure. I try to catch failure before it happens. I hold bi-weekly one-on-one conversations to talk to each person directly about what they are doing, what challenges and obstacles they face, and what we can do to help them be successful. I attend as many of the daily team stand-ups that my schedule allows so that I can learn first-hand how work is progressing at the team level in real-time. And our management team meets weekly with our Product Owners and ScrumMasters to discuss how various projects/releases are progressing, and we’re always prepared to remove obstacles or provide assistance to any team that needs it.

In business, there is an accounting process. My company is a for-profit entity, and we need to “make our numbers.” There is a final accounting at the end of every year, and our business uses quarterly measurements to check our progress along the way. We do the same with our staff. Accountability exists, and it will always (and should be) present. It just doesn’t have to be a threat.


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