Rethinking Accountability

When you are discussing top leadership challenges, accountability is an issue that comes up often. Many people find it difficult to hold others accountable for results and to call them on it when necessary.

But leaders might be spending the majority of their time looking at the wrong end of the problem, says Scott Blanchard, principal and executive vice president with The Ken Blanchard Companies.

“You cannot crack the whip enough, or hold someone accountable enough, to achieve the kind of results you can if, instead, you focus on helping people understand the vision, care about it deeply, and see themselves as a part of it.

“Create that kind of alignment and you won’t have to worry about accountability. Instead, employees will start holding you accountable as a leader to clear the way and help them get things done.”

Check Alignment First

In Blanchard’s experience, accountability issues usually stem from employees not truly understanding the role that they play in helping the organization achieve its prime objective. The best leaders are the ones who make an organization’s prime objective crystal clear and then make sure that everyone knows how his or her individual role ties in.

In Performance Management: Putting Research into Action, author and consultant William Schiemann shares the results of a Metrus Group survey that identifies six gaps that get in the way of organization alignment. While each factor on its own contributes to a portion of the problem, the cumulative effect is staggering—only 14% of the organizations Schiemann polled reported that their employees have a good understanding of their company’s strategy and direction.


From Performance Management: Putting Research into Action (2009) page 53, Figure 2.2 “Why Strategies and Behavior Disconnect: Percentage of Rater Agreement.” The percentages represent the cumulative agreement of raters for each element and for the ones above that element.

Strategies for Closing the Gap

For leaders looking to close the alignment gap in their organizations, Schiemann recommends seven key steps:

  1. Develop a clear, agreed-on vision and strategy.
  2. Translate the vision and strategy into clear, understandable goals and measures.
  3. Include and build passion for the vision, strategy, goals among those who are implementing them.
  4. Provide clarity regarding individual roles and requirements and link them across the organization.
  5. Make sure that people have the talent, information, and resources to reach the goals.
  6. Give clear, timely feedback on goal attainment.
  7. Provide meaningful incentives to encourage employees to develop or deploy sufficient capabilities to achieve the goals.

Impact Mapping

One of the tools that Blanchard likes to use to begin closing the gap is an impact map that creates a very powerful line-of-sight so that people can understand the results they are being held accountable for, the behaviors that achieve those results, and how those results contribute to the success of the organization.

“When people understand where their organization is going—including the role they play in it—they step up, work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company. That’s because they can see the impact of every decision and how it impacts overall results.”

For managers looking to set and achieve goals more effectively in the coming year, John Hester, a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, recommends focusing on three key areas.

  • Approach goal setting as a partnership. This is something to be done in partnership with your team member. It should be a collaborative process. So the manager needs to know what the employee’s key areas of responsibility are, what is expected in the role, and what they want to see in terms of performance. The key is to have that discussion with the employee.
  • Identify why a particular goal is motivating. What difference does it make in the organization, or to the team, or to the individual employee? Sometimes all people need to know is why the task is important. The “why” explains how the person’s task fits in with overall job performance and the goals and objectives of the unit, division, organization, and customer. It clarifies how the task supports higher-level outcomes.
  • Diagnose competence and commitment levels. It’s important that a manager find out about experience with a specific task and then partner with the employee to determine what they need in terms of direction and support to be successful with this particular assignment.

Six Alternatives to an Accountability Discussion

Motivation expert David Facer warns that no matter how skillfully we parse it, and no matter how sweetly we explain the situation, the accountability discussion is a thinly veiled form of control. It says very clearly: You are responsible for this and I need you to really get that. Do you understand?

As Facer explains, “I have met very few employees who walk away from accountability discussions feeling good about themselves, their managers, and the company.”

Instead, Facer recommends a less controlling, more autonomy-supportive approach. Research shows these approaches are much more likely to stimulate positive motivational responses than emphasizing accountability. Facer suggests:

  • Take the employee’s perspective. Listen carefully to the employee’s experience so you understand it deeply.
  • Encourage initiative and choice. Help the employee discover several new options for future action. Be careful not to tell them everything they need to do. Encouraging initiative means listening and guiding first and foremost, not pushing your formula.
  • Help the employee take on more challenges—but not too much. One or two more challenging steps at a time will generally work well.
  • Provide a logical rationale for any direct requests you have. They need to make their new actions their own. The more you push the less likely they will experience optimal motivation.
  • Minimize use of pressuring language and controlling tone of voice. Dialing down fear, concern, and pressure is vital to tapping into the employee’s natural desire to improve, grow, and perform at high levels.

“All of the above approaches have been shown to result in positive behavioral responses because they help people feel validated, safe, and free from unnecessary controls," says Facer. "They are like honey to accountability’s vinegar. After all, which would you prefer?”


Would you like to learn more about creating better alignment and accountability in your organization? Then join us for a free webinar!

3 Keys to Building Alignment and Accountability

Thursday, January 30, 2014
10:00–11:00 a.m. Pacific, 1:00–2:00 p.m. Eastern, 6:00–7:00 p.m. GMT

Ready for a bold start to 2014? Learn how to supercharge your goal setting, create buy-in, and build a motivated and aligned work environment!

Blanchard performance expert John Hester will share the three keys all leaders need to focus on to get a team, department, or organization moving in the same direction and firing on all cylinders.

You’ll learn:

  • One simple exercise that will identify the current level of alignment in your organization—and how to get realigned with goals that are motivating and measurable
  • The one thing that has to be in place before you can have an accountability conversation and the four types of conversations that leaders need to master to build competence and commitment
  • The leader behaviors that diminish motivation and accountability—and how to correct them

Make 2014 everything you hope it can be by looking at your current levels of alignment, engagement, and accountability and some of the strategies and practices you can put in place to make this your organization’s best year ever. Join us for this free webinar and get your year off to a bold start!

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