How to create a culture of soft accountability in 3 steps

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I see it every week: frustration with missed deadlines, I-will-bring-it-to-you-by-tomorrow commitment that floats in the next week, the powerlessness to always wait for the same person follow through on what they said they would do. So many leaders I work with are discouraged by their accountability culture, not only because they believe they can’t trust their reports, but also because they really want to. They feel like they’re on a tightrope, balancing between being a compassionate, inspirational leader and a deadline-conscious badass.

Accountability is an important part of culture, but according to the Partners in Leadership (now Culture Partners) Workplace Accountability Study, up to 93% of employees are “unable to align their work or take responsibility for the desired results”. How do effective leaders maintain this tension between empowering and committing to results? How do they motivate their team while keeping an eye on dependencies in their work results? It begins, as it ends, with clear chords.

Related: Here’s How to Foster a Culture of Accountability in Your Company

Agree on clear agreements

A clear agreement is an agreement that has three crucial elements: who go do What by when. This is all very nodding, and I see how simple it sounds. It’s probably nothing new to you, actually. But like most simple and important things, it is also very difficult.

Think about your current demands or due tasks. Does everyone have a clear owner, or is ownership implied or diffused among multiple people? Is the result clear and ideally in the form of a deliverable, so that the completion is unambiguous? And is there clarity on the due date of the total task or milestones? “This week” and “end of day” are not specific, and they mean different things to different people. Contrast that ambiguity with a clear, thoughtful request: “Jane, will you send me a one-page summary of product features by 5:00 p.m. EST tomorrow?”

The way to achieve this clarity, however, is not as simple as starting over. Of course, this clarity is valuable, but any agreement is, by definition, between two or more people. And this way of communicating is, in itself, an agreement. As a first step, take the time to share with your direct reports that you will be making clear agreements with them. Explain what you mean by that, and ask them if they also agree to make clear agreements. It gives them a chance to sign up and gives you a social contract to rely on later.

Honor most of your agreements

The Conscious Leadership Group suggests that good leaders keep about 90% of their agreements. Life happens, and no one is perfect, but the aspiration is to keep agreements as often as possible. When you realize you can’t keep a deal going, act quickly to renegotiate the deal. A renegotiation means more than just letting people know that you can’t keep your agreement. Just as a deal requires two or more people, so does a renegotiated deal.

The important role of the leader here is to set an example by making and honoring agreements. Building a culture of soft responsibility starts with this commitment. As a starting point, stick to the highest level of clear chords. Make it clear who, what, and when, then make your tracking visible. Stick to your agreements as a signal of your sincerity.

Related: How to Increase Accountability Without Shooting People’s Necks

Clean up all broken chords

Despite our best intentions and best efforts, we will break some of our agreements. Again, this is an opportunity to lead by example and support commitment to clear agreements. In fact, this is the most important opportunity to reinforce that. Agreements will inevitably be broken, and unless they are cleared up quickly and deliberately, the commitment to clear agreements will begin to dissolve.

The very first step is to recognize that you were not honest with your agreement. Integrity, here, recognizes that you made a commitment to do something before a certain time and that you have failed in this commitment. It’s a heavy word by design, but it doesn’t have to be conversation heavy. If I’m late to a session with a client, I just say “I want to acknowledge that I’m two minutes late to our meeting and I’m not being honest with my agreement to start at the top of the hour.”

The second step is to ask yourself what can be done to restore trust. Being late to a meeting may only require a new commitment to being on time. Being chronically late or breaking a more sensitive agreement may require more conversation and change. This is a critical step. Note that this is not an apology. This is a sincere acknowledgment of a broken deal and a sincere attempt to rebuild trust going forward.

Related: Want accountability on your team? Start from the top

Building a culture of soft accountability begins and ends with clear agreements. A fundamental conversation about commitment to clear agreements, a prior agreement, is the starting point. Engagement then lives with your actions as a model, and it grows with your focus on renegotiating and clarifying broken deals.

That’s what it means to have soft responsibility. When leaders model integrity and set expectations of clear agreements for everyone, including themselves, accountability moves away from a hardened practice of deadlines and consequences. It simply becomes part of the cultural fabric and a shared means of communication. It becomes united and bears meaning. Good luck on your trip.

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