Debunking Leadership Myths #8 — My People Should Be Accountable On Their Own

The previous installment of this Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series unpacked the misguided belief that we are already surrounded by the right people. In this article, we tackle another frequent—but faulty—assumption related to people.

“My people should be accountable on their own.”

Almost every leader I’ve met has some degree of belief in this leadership myth. They think that by hiring the right people and putting them in the right seats they’ve also – magically – screened for accountability. As such, when it comes to getting things done, they assume all they have to do is delegate. Unfortunately, as literally millions of leaders worldwide lament, that’s just not the case.

And yet, the misguided belief persists.

To understand the truth about accountability and accomplishment, we can look to a 1992 experiment by University of California psychologist Robert Rosenthal. Rosenthal explored the impact of teachers’ expectations on student achievement. At the beginning of a school year, Rosenthal selected children at random and informed their teachers they possessed particularly high potential. Interestingly, at the end of the academic year, these “high-potential” students had outperformed their peers. 

Was it because Rosenthal somehow selected the most talented students by accident? Nope. This was a rigorous study that controlled for that. The only explanation for their success was that the teachers believed they were especially talented and treated them as such. As a result of that treatment, those students rose to the challenge and performed exceptionally. 

This phenomenon goes both ways. Rest assured that if the teachers were warned that the children were more difficult or less skilled than the others, they would have lowered their expectations, and in turn—unfortunately—those students would have likely met them. Ultimately, the onus was on the teachers to foster accountability in their students and the level of their belief about the students’ capabilities made all the difference.

The same is true for you as a leader. 

It is up to you to create the environment in which your people are accountable and, as Rosenthal’s experiment so clearly demonstrates, your beliefs about their potential will dictate how much they achieve. Further, it’s crucial that you get this right if your goal is to scale. To experience sustainable growth, you must continuously elevate yourself strategically and let go of more tactical things. Counting on others to manage increasingly important aspects of your business / division / unit / team requires that you believe your team is capable of successfully executing what you ask of them. 

If you don’t believe your people are capable of stepping up and executing with excellence, then you’ll need to confront the likelihood that you’ll need to upgrade your team. It’s not uncommon for a poor accountability diagnosis to mask the probability that one (or more) members of your team might not be the right person for their role! 

Get the members of your team right first. It’s a thousand times harder to accomplish anything without the right people in the right seats.

Holding others accountable has proven challenging for every leader I’ve coached, but if you believe those around you can step up to the challenge, you’ll create an environment that will enable them to do so—and reap the benefits of their capability, commitment, and growth.

There are three essential building blocks to create accountability:

1)  You must believe they are capable of completing the task or achieving the result you want. This is non-negotiable. If you don’t believe they can do it, they won’t either. Tell them outright: I believe in you. 

2)  Explain clearly and in detail why the task or project at hand matters. Let them know why it’s important to you personally and help them see how they are fitting into a bigger picture. Say, This is important to me

3)  Show them repeatedly that you’re watching. Check in – formally and informally. Provide coaching to help them course-correct along the way. Confirm their progress. Let them know, I am watching. 

When you put in the work to build accountability, it will motivate and challenge everyone involved. We all remember a boss, mentor, or leader who helped us perform at our best and how fantastic it feels to achieve things at the top of our game.

Marion Suro was the best boss I ever had and, not coincidentally, was highly effective at creating accountability. Her expectations of me were incredibly high. She put me in a position to stretch as I faced challenge after challenge. And she was very deliberate in letting me know that she was watching and that she expected me to fulfill each and every commitment I made to her. 

Here’s a classic example: When we’d pass each other in the hallway, she would cock her head to the side and say something like, “You’re going to get that report to me by the end of business today, right?” 

I could only reply with a confident “Of course,” before hustling back to my desk to ensure it was done and in to her before I went home that evening. 

At the time, it was maddening – yet motivating. Today, I know her approach made me better in so many ways—empowering me to meet her high expectations as I grew in my role. 

For additional help creating accountability in your own operation, look to Activator #6: Measure More. Tracking progress on the path toward a larger objective helps you focus on the present while simultaneously pursuing longer-term goals, all while inspiring your team to be accountable for hitting the marks along the way. Set small, incremental goals and make sure to check in on them repeatedly. 

You can use this free Accountability Tool to cultivate accountability within yourself and your team. This powerful, easy-to-use tool helps make measuring more a habit. Complete the tool with your team and refer to it daily to ensure you are consistently measuring progress toward your long-term aspirations. Don’t hesitate to modify as necessary, and make sure to assess and update quarterly. With a little effort, accountability will become the norm for you and for your team.

As a bit of a bonus, you can employ this Activator and the Accountability Tool as mechanisms to foster accountability and achieve your personal objectives as well. For example, several years ago, I decided to improve my health and fitness. In addition to weighing myself daily, I purchased a Fitbit and tracked my steps, as well as my daily calorie and water intake. I lost sixty-five pounds, changed a number of bad habits along the way, and I’m now in better shape than at any other point in my life. Measuring these details on a regular basis paved the path that ultimately produced the overall outcome I desired. 

In summary, your beliefs about the people you lead contribute massively to their accountability and accomplishments. Your team will not and cannot be fully accountable unless you create the environment that makes it so. Get the right people in the right seats, believe in them, and lean in using the three building blocks of accountability to challenge them to perform at their highest capacity. 

The next and ninth article in this Leadership Myths Series tackles an extremely costly myth to which many CEOs and business leaders fall prey: I can—and should—leave my past behind.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Eight Work Habits Found in Extremely Valuable Employees

“How do you define a valuable employee? Is it experience or maybe work ethic? Do you see competence in a specific area as the be-all and end-all of determining employee value?

What about soft skills? Do they hold the same value when interviewing for a rock star engineer or strategist position? Well, they should.

While technical skills and other hard skills defined in the job description matter, it’s an employee’s people skills and a whole host of other personal attributes that are crucial for long-term success…”

Covid-19 and a Study to Unpack the Psychological Response of CEOs – Three Types Emerge

“The FEAR-FOCUSED GROUP was the most negative and was watching too much media and occupying time on the blame game. (Who’s fault is this?) Which clouded judgment and is preventing them from seeing what CAN BE DONE.

The UN-FOCUSED GROUP had a bit of ‘head in the sand’ thinking and could have easily been classified as a part of the FEAR-FOCUSED group, but they demonstrated some slightly different traits. Mostly in the way they talked about finding a plan or getting a plan more than the FF group.

The STRATEGY-FOCUSED GROUP leaned WAY more on healthy networks and focused on solutions more and were overall more positive and felt more secure than others. Some of this was because they didn’t consume a lot of fear or negativity…”

Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues

“More than 1200 people in 24 different countries — working in industries ranging from manufacturing and science to real estate, education, and financial services — completed the first survey. We are currently following up with these people in subsequent surveys.

Our preliminary findings suggest that many managers are struggling in their roles, and would benefit from more support. As we suspected, our research also suggests that better quality management will improve remote workers’ well-being and performance…

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