Hold People Accountable (But Keep It Safe)

In a remote setting, accountability is important. But equally important is safety.

Here’s another lesson from 2020 and this one comes in the light of working fully remote for almost a year now and reflecting on all the organizational complexities that come with it. What complexities, specifically? First off, the lack of visibility. Without a physical space to gather, we’ve lost all visual cues as to how people are actually doing (and, admittedly, what they’re actually doing). Secondly, when you can’t just pop your head up and ask a question, there’s an inevitable slowdown of information and obvious challenges in decision making that comes with that.

In the light of working fully remotely for almost a year now and all the organizational complexities that come with it, we learn a few lessons on accountability.

Each of these challenges may have its unique impact and nature, but ultimately, the key to addressing both has always been management by context and not by control. In the virtual workspace, you’ll understandably have some level of struggle trying to get people to precisely understand your instructions, much less follow through with them the way you imagine it. But setting the right context — the why’s and what’s, instead of the how’s — often gets you better results (not just in the remote setting, by the way, but in almost any setting).

Management by context is likewise about holding people accountable (and, yes, that includes holding yourself accountable). From the beginning of our work-from-home transition, I’ve always tried to emphasize that everyone should be accountable for the results and not just the completion of tasks. It means everyone should personally take account of the impact they make and work towards sustaining the positive and correcting the problematic.

Safety First

Safety is about giving people room to make mistakes, and the opportunities to correct them.

The slowdown of information has made it practically impossible to get perfect information (which was improbable enough in normal circumstances), and that can be debilitating to decision making at all levels. But in extraordinary times like these, we just have to accept that not all of our decisions will be made on a rock solid foundation. The condition, however, is that everyone simply needs to be accountable for their decisions.

This is not about being unsafe and reckless. In fact, encouraging people to take risks with their decisions may be about holding them accountable for the results, but it’s even more so making sure they feel safe taking those risks.

Safety is about assuming the best intentions, unless proven otherwise. It’s giving people room to make mistakes, and the opportunities and capabilities to correct them. It’s about giving them express permission to make those decisions and establishing safeguards to make sure mistakes are not irreversible.

Here are a couple of key points about how safety can work with accountability — first, what delegation is, and second, what accountability is not.

About delegation

If there’s one thing you can do to make accountability safe for your team, it’s sharing that accountability with them. Remember that delegation is transferring responsibility (the actual work to be done), but not the accountability (ownership of the results). If you transfer accountability completely, that’s arbitration — you’re basically washing your hands of the matter.

It may be hard to wrap your head around how you can demand accountability and hold on to it at the same time, but really it’s all about shared ownership and having “skin in the game”, even if you’re not doing the actual work. Taking shared ownership of results with your team lightens the weight on their shoulder and signals to them that whatever the outcome, you’ll have their backs. It’s always safer when you’re working with people, not for people.

What Accountability Is Not

Holding people accountable is not about punishment. It’s about reflection.

That being said, perhaps as important, if not more, than understanding what “holding people accountable” means is understanding what it’s not about. Keeping things safe, after all, is more about what you don’t do than what you do.

Holding people accountable is not about judging mistakes — it’s about granting ownership over decisions, and that means the right to make well-intentioned mistakes and, equally, the responsibility and power to fix them.

Holding people accountable is not about punishment — it’s about self-reflection. When someone in your team makes mistakes, coach them towards an understanding of what went wrong and let the change come from within them.

Holding people accountable is not about public shaming. Don’t call people out in a public venue without talking to them directly. Of course, this doesn’t apply to holding yourself accountable — especially as a leader, publicly acknowledging your mistakes can be more empowering than you might imagine. Likewise, when someone in your team does something less than ideal, help them realize for themselves that owning up to the mistake can be the best thing they do for themselves. Ultimately, however, this should be a choice, which leads us to the final point.

Holding people accountable is not about enforced values and goals — it’s about shared ones. You can hold people accountable for certain accomplishments, but it won’t do much good unless you have buy-in from them.

Are your teammates and colleagues taking way too long to make decisions? Are they playing it too safe to the point of not moving forward? It might be time to take a look at your accountability and safety practices. And this year, as we continue to brave this new world, there’s no better time to establish a healthy culture around these things.

If you liked this post, follow my Facebook page or subscribe to my mailing list for more management and leadership reflections and advise! Originally published at https://techmanagement.life on January 9, 2021.

I’m an engineering manager and entrepreneur who loves exchanging ideas and helping others become better at what they do. I run a blog at techmanagement.life

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