If there are two words in the leadership and management arena that are more misunderstood and abused than accountability and coaching, I’d be interested in hearing them.
Coaching and accountability. Accountability and coaching. Like peas and carrots. Or maybe more like liver and onions. Heck, it may conjure sensations more akin to a colonoscopy, depending just how bad your experiences have been.
Coaching can go both ways, right? Sometimes it has a positive vibe to it, while other times, like when it’s framed as a “coaching session,” it can have a slightly more ominous tone. Like a punch to the soul perhaps.
Accountability, no matter how much we try to reframe it into something positive (which rightly understood, it is), still has a decidedly negative connotation for most of us.
The reason it’s like that is because most of us have experienced things that led us to attach negative emotions to those words. That’s kind of how our minds work. If we have a negative attitude about something, it’s because we have negative beliefs about that thing. And if we have negative beliefs about that thing, it’s usually because we’ve had experiences that have led to those beliefs. Make sense?
So our attitudes and beliefs about coaching and accountability have been shaped by experiences we’ve had with coaching and accountability. Many, though probably not all, of those experiences have likely been negative.
But here’s the thing — it doesn’t have to be this way. It really doesn’t.
Coaching and accountability are two very powerful tools that can and should have a decidedly positive impact on teams and organizations, but they can only do that if they’re conceptualized and practiced appropriately.
Here’s what the best leaders know about coaching and accountability:
1. Accountability is a shared thing between two or more people.
It’s not a one-way thing. The dynamic accompanying accountability changes dramatically if accountability goes both ways. The problem, of course, is that usually that’s not how it’s orchestrated. Typically, the one with the most positional power calls the “subordinate” into his/her larger, more luxurious office, where he/she then — and this is the phrase — “holds the ‘subordinate’ accountable.” That conversation is generally pretty one-sided, save for perhaps a couple patronizing questions.
That, my friends, is not accountability. That’s an assertion of power. A scolding. A corrective conversation. But it’s not what accountability should look like.
Accountability should be a shared thing. It’s two or more people holding each other accountable to agreed upon and committed to group goals and expectations. As it relates to a team, it’s the entire team, including the leader, holding each other accountable.
2. Coaching and accountability aren’t meant to be instruments of power.
Related to the above, coaching and accountability shouldn’t be thought of and/or used as instruments of power and control. Now don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I understand the necessity of formal, corrective, disciplinary action from an HR perspective; but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Too often, coaching and accountability are used as tools to assert dominance and/or control over “subordinates.” (Oh, how I hate that word.) Think about it. We (organizations) make people — human beings — walk into their bosses’ offices, heads down in shame, sit down, listen to their bosses’ monologues about all the ways they’ve messed up, nod in feigned agreement with their bosses, and then get up and go back to work. Oh, and “go team” and all that jazz. Hashtag sarcasm.
3. Coaching and accountability conversations should be conceptualized as opportunities to serve a teammate.
What if we wiped our mental whiteboards clean and started from the perspective that coaching and accountability were primarily about serving our teammates? What if that was the primary end? I bet those conversations would look and feel a whole lot different. And I bet they’d produce better and more sustainable results too. (In fact, I know from experience they do.)
4. Coaching and accountability conversations should be truly collaborative.
As I alluded to above, coaching and accountability ought to be collaborative. A coaching conversation, for example, ought not be a monologue given by the one with the most positional power. Rather, the conversation should feel more like…well…a conversation. If we truly view accountability as a shared thing, the conversation should feel shared too. It then becomes more of a dialogue between two teammates about what went wrong, what each of them thinks, what each of them could have done differently, and what each of them commits to do going forward. You see, that’s shared accountability. That’s mutual ownership. It’s collaborative and team-oriented.
5. Coaching and accountability should be primarily a team thing, not something owned exclusively by the manager.
I’ve said it elsewhere — and I go into it in much greater depth in one of the talks I give — but I don’t even see accountability on a team as being primarily or exclusively a manager’s responsibility. Now, it’s the leader’s responsibility to set the tone of vulnerability and create the context for this sort of group accountability, but then I think that the team itself can and should serve as the primary and first line of accountability for itself.
I think that rightly understood, a team that has learned to be vulnerable together and has committed together to living out a group of values and performing to certain standards — that team can and should hold each other accountable to live those values and perform to those standards. And when one or more of them fails to do so — which is obviously going to happen from time to time, since teams are full of flawed, imperfect, humans — one or more of the others should and likely will (if that vulnerability and trust has been established) come alongside their struggling teammates and help them get back on track so that not only can those teammates get back to performing to the level they all committed to, but then also can the team, together, perform at an optimum level, focused on team outcomes.
6. No leader/manager/boss/executive/CEO should be above accountability.
This a big one. Some leaders act like they’re above their teams. They behave as if no one has a right to call them out on their toxic behaviors and attitudes. Watch out for those leaders. It’s almost a certainty that those leaders are cultivating an unhealthy environment on their teams, and likely, by extension, the organization. And at some point you have to ask yourself, Why will those leaders often go to such great lengths — sometimes even including lying, deception, or any number of things — to avoid any real accountability for their actions and behaviors?
The best leaders humbly and eagerly embrace group accountability and look forward to learning and growing from it. Rather than avoiding it or bristling at it, they invite it.
So what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that coaching and accountability should be thought of differently. The foundational principle to keep in mind is that accountability, rightly understood, is a shared thing among a group of people, including the leader. If a leader and team can embrace that sort of accountability, it can dramatically transform and improve the team’s dynamic and performance.