I have just completed my 24th year as an instructor for the Securities Industry Institute at the Wharton School of Business. The attendees of this event are senior executives of major financial institutions. This year they asked me to put together a new class on accountability. The course was exceptionally well received, but I was fascinated that the main topic they wanted to focus on was not holding their people accountable; it was holding their peers and leaders accountable. Here is some of the advice I gave them.
The single most crucial factor in accountability is setting exceedingly clear expectations.
A big part of this is establishing unambiguous goals. When possible, make them binary. You want to take all emotion, politics, and opinion out of the equation. The person either accomplished it or didn’t. It is just data.
Next, you must gain agreement from the other person that they accept accountability for this item. It is essential that they communicate that they understand what is required and commit to accomplishing it. I strongly recommend that you get both the expectations and agreement in writing. In this way, there can be no doubt that everyone is on the same page.
When holding a peer or superior accountable, there must be an atmosphere of psychological safety. There must be enough trust that people can speak with candor. They must be able to discuss difficult topics professionally. Telling your boss, they did not deliver on what they promised can be awkward. But if they understand that their lack of accountability impacts your work, they should be more open to your feedback.
Here’s where it gets tricky. When holding a subordinate accountable, you can impose consequences for noncompliance. However, you don’t have that option with your peers or boss. Mutual accountability at that level rests on maintaining a high level of personal accountability. I need to be confident that the other person will do what they say and demonstrate that I consistently deliver what I promise. If I hold myself to high accountability standards, I have earned the right to hold others accountable.
If you are the peer or boss, you must embrace others holding you accountable. You should expect, request, and appreciate it.
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