Jason R. Waller
How to Create a Culture of Gentle Accountability in 3 Steps
Updated: Mar 6
Here's how leaders can hold their teams accountable in a more supportive and meaningful way.
I see it every week: the frustration over blown deadlines, the I'll-get-this-to-you-by-tomorrow commitment that floats into next week, the helplessness with always waiting on the same person to follow through on what they said they would do. So many leaders I work with are discouraged with their culture of accountability, 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, inspiring leader and a deadline-minded hardass.
Accountability is an important part of culture, but according to the Workplace Accountability Study from Partners in Leadership (now Culture Partners), as many as 93% of employees are "unable to align their work or take accountability for desired results." How do effective leaders hold that tension between giving autonomy and holding a commitment to results? How do they motivate their team while keeping an eye on the dependencies in their work outputs? It begins, like it ends, with clear agreements.
Agree on clear agreements
A clear agreement is an agreement that has three crucial components: who is going to do what by when. It's all very head-noddable, and I see how simple it sounds. It's probably nothing new to you, actually. But like most simple, important things, it's also really hard.
Think about your current requests or tasks due. Does each one have a clear owner, or is ownership implied or diffused amongst several people? Is the outcome crystal clear and ideally in the form of a deliverable, such that completion is unambiguous? And is there clarity on when the total task or milestones are due? "This week" and "end of day" aren't specific, and they mean different things to different people. Contrast that ambiguity with a clear, thoughtful request: "Jane, do you agree to send me a one-page summary of the product capabilities by 5:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow?"
The way to arrive at this clarity, though, isn't as simple as just starting it from scratch. Sure, 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 time with your direct reports to share that you're going to form clear agreements with them. Explain what you mean by this, and ask if they agree to form clear agreements, too. This gives them a chance to opt in and gives you a social contract to fall back on later.
Honor most of your agreements
The Conscious Leadership Group suggests that good leaders keep about 90% of their agreements. Life happens, and nobody is perfect, but the aspiration is to keep agreements as often as possible. When you realize that you can't keep an agreement made, move quickly to renegotiate the agreement. A renegotiation means more than simply letting people know you can't keep your agreement. Just like an agreement requires two or more people, so too does a renegotiated agreement.
The important role of the leader, here, is to role model making and keeping agreements. Setting a culture of gentle accountability begins with this commitment. As a starting point, hold yourself to the highest standard of clear agreements. Include a clear who, what and by when, and then make your follow-through visible. Hold to your agreements as a signal to your sincerity of them.
Related: How to Increase Accountability Without Breathing Down People's Necks
Clean up any broken agreements
Despite our best intentions and efforts, though, we will break some of our agreements. Again, this is an opportunity to role model and support the commitment to clear agreements. In fact, this is the most important opportunity to reinforce this. Agreements will inevitably be broken, and unless they are cleaned up quickly and deliberately, the commitment to clear agreements will start to dissolve.
The very first step is to acknowledge that you were out of integrity with your agreement. Integrity, here, is acknowledging that you made a commitment to do something by a certain time and that you lapsed in that commitment. It's a heavy word by design, but it doesn't need to be a heavy conversation. If I'm late to a session with a client, I simply say "I want to acknowledge that I'm two minutes late to our meeting and I'm out of integrity with my agreement to start at the top of the hour."
The second step is to ask what can be done to repair trust. Being late to a meeting might only require a recommitment to being on time. Being chronically late or breaching a more sensitive agreement might require a more significant conversation and change. This is a critical step. Note that this is not an apology. This is a sincere acknowledgment of a broken agreement and a heartfelt bid to repair trust going forward.
Related: Want Accountability Within Your Team? Start at the Top
Building a culture of gentle accountability begins and ends with clear agreements. A foundational conversation on committing to clear agreements, a pre-agreement, is the starting point. The commitment then lives with your actions as a role model, and it grows with your attention on renegotiating and clearing up broken agreements.
This is what it means to have gentle accountability. When leaders role model integrity and set expectations of clear agreements for everyone, including themselves, accountability moves away from a hardened practice of timelines and consequences. It simply becomes part of the cultural fabric and a shared way of communicating. It becomes supportive and meaningful. Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in Entrepreneur