Ask anyone for the first image that comes to mind when they hear the word “accountability” and most people will admit that it conjures pictures of pointing fingers, condemning stares, and accusatory words. Not Don Tinney of EOS Worldwide, however. One of the times I (Tim) had the privilege of listening to Don speak, he gave his definition of accountability. As I recollect, he said that accountability means we make promises to each other – and we always follow through on our promises. On the rare occasions that we don’t, we ask, “How can we support you to help you fulfill that promise?”
The moment I heard that, I was transfixed. Accountability as promise. What uplifting language! What a great word picture! We all know what a promise is. We all want to keep our promises. We all feel badly if we fail to deliver on a promise made. We readily help one another keep promises made in good faith.
When your team replaces the stereotypical negative image of accountability with Don Tinney’s understanding of it, the entire tenor of team meetings changes. For example, one of our client companies needed to revise a critical business process to accommodate changes in the marketplace. The leadership team assumed that this would be a fairly straightforward endeavor. The reality, however, was far more complicated. At a status meeting, the person who owned the task put the facts on the table: “This project is off track because there are a lot more dependencies than we had initially realized.” Immediately, the team rallied and other leaders volunteered to help with the portions of the project that impacted their functional areas.
What happened? The person who owned the task had made a promise to the team to get the job done. But he hit an unexpected obstacle and needed help. The team asked how they could support him and then worked together to get the job done. They replaced “gotcha!” with “got your back!”
Moving to Greater Team Health
Our experience has been that when teams approach accountability in terms of making and keeping promises to each other, there is a higher level of team health. Team members are not living in fear of being judged harshly. There are no slaps on the wrist, no blistering reprimands, no sarcastic comments. They know they will be supported if they run into difficulties delivering on a commitment, whether those difficulties are professional (such as a key employee resigning) or personal (such as a health issue).
That being said, there are also no excuses, no shoddy workmanship, and no slack performance on such a team. Why? Because they take promises seriously. In fact, teams that treat accountability in terms of promises made and promises kept get more done – and more done right the first time. The strong mutuality of promises keeps the team and every individual member of it on track.
What About Broken Promises?
Does it sometimes happen that a person is just plain lazy or disorganized or a procrastinator and therefore does not deliver on his or her promise? Of course; people are people. In that case, no one on the team says “That’s okay; it’s all right that you didn’t follow through – we’ll cover for you.” Not at all.
Viewing accountability through the lens of making and keeping promises does not diminish the criticality of the tasks at hand. The person made a promise – a promise about a priority. The reason for the failure to execute needs to be addressed, but it is addressed within the context of “How can we support you to fulfill the promise?” No one is beaten down; the focus is on lifting up. Occasionally, lifting the person up does not mean pitching in to do the work; it may involve giving appropriate redirecting feedback to help them modify their behaviors.
Treating accountability in terms of promise engenders respect: respect for each individual, respect for the team as a whole, respect for the company, and respect for the customer. This mutuality stimulates people to do their very best. After all, as Don Tinney declared, we make promises to each other – and we always follow through on our promises.