Several years ago, a major Australian bank was accused of having a toxic culture. The CEO declared in the media that the middle management was the cause of the poor culture. I still remember how perplexed I was when I read that. The CEO was publicly demonstrating image management and a lack of personal accountability — the very opposite of a growth-minded response.
Everyone is accountable for culture, but senior leadership is most accountable. Unfortunately, as soon as senior leaders fail to take accountability, they make it unsafe for everyone else to do the same. Image management becomes rife. Challenger safety—the highest level of team psychological safety—is impossible. You can imagine how psychologically safe those middle managers felt about giving feedback to the CEO on his or any other senior management behaviour.
Unfortunately, this is not restricted to CEOs and senior management. It’s commonplace at all levels of organisations. Over the past two decades we’ve guided thousands of leaders through live feedback sessions with their team, using our 360° assessment as the framework for discussion. Our experience is that, when leaders are confronted with blind spots and weak spots through their team’s feedback, they immediately start defending, blaming, rationalising.
‘I do communicate with you. You just don’t listen.’
‘I have to micromanage because I can’t trust you to deliver!’
I will sometimes tease them a bit: ‘So you’re saying your behaviour is always justified and you have nothing to work on?’
They immediately backtrack, before often slipping back into rationalisation.
This is both common and understandable. We all have a hard time accepting tough feedback. We all want to be seen for our best qualities, and we want to defend, explain and justify our weaknesses. When avoiding accountability, we typically engage in one or more of these unconscious, reactive-brain behaviours:
- isolation (running away), stonewalling, passive-aggressive retreat/withdrawal
- the PR spin (for example, we are told we are not delegating well, but rather than changing, we ‘sell’ ourselves by pointing out how excellent our results are)
All of these reactive-brain reactions diminish psychological safety. We’ve personally witnessed these on countless occasions while working with leaders and teams. On one occasion, the boss was doing his usual defensive routine. I stopped him and turned to the team and said, ‘What is the impact of his defensiveness?’
They collectively answered along these lines: ‘We feel unsafe and unwilling to give more honest feedback, even when he’s asking for it. While he doesn’t attack us, when he denies, excuses and defends, it makes an already challenging task of developing an honest team culture feel impossible.’ They were affirming the absence of challenger safety as a direct result of his defensive behaviours.
On one level, it makes no logical sense to engage in these defensive behaviours. They prevent us from learning and growing, erode our credibility and diminish psychological safety. In fact, as I have personally witnessed, they can end careers and cost companies millions of dollars.
But on another level, these behaviours make perfect sense. We engage in them because they give us a temporary sense of security and emotional comfort from the vulnerable and uncomfortable feelings triggered by tough feedback.
Accountability starts with ourselves
A growth mindset requires that we take personal accountability for own our behaviour and our impact on other people and situations. Without personal accountability, we remain locked in our self-defeating habits.
We’ve done extensive research on how accountability impacts leadership effectiveness, and the results are astounding. We’ve found that 48.51 per cent of a leader’s trust and credibility can be attributed to the principle of accountability (with a heavy emphasis on measuring how well they take accountability for their mistakes and misaligned behaviours.). Furthermore, the difference in leadership effectiveness between leaders who do accountability well and leaders who are poor at accountability is 67.7 per cent.
Organisational scientist Peter Senge puts it like this: ‘Personal change and organisational change are always two sides of the same coin, and the fantasy we often carry around that somehow my organisation will change without me changing is truly crazy. If we don’t acknowledge this two-way street to change, we invariably buy into a ‘Messiah Myth’ in organisations, where one person saves the day all by themselves, or we communicate that others need to change, but not ourselves. The first option ensures no one looks at themselves for change and the second option will absolutely guarantee resistance to change. Neither option produces real or lasting transformation.
Unfortunately, leaders generally struggle with taking accountability. According to research by Graham Scrivener:
- 46 per cent of managers fail to take responsibility for their actions
- only 50 per cent of employees report having seen their boss model accountable behaviour
- 58 per cent of leaders do not keep their promises
- only 35 per cent of managers share information so people can be clear on their responsibilities and understand company objectives.
Two sides of accountability
When leaders begin seeing and owning their shadow and start demonstrating more personal accountability, it’s common for them to recognise how they have been blaming others, but then to swing to the opposite end of the scale and take 100 per cent responsibility for everything that happens in their team or organisation. The truth is that neither the leader nor the team alone can be blamed for dysfunction and poor performance. In a challenger safety environment, everyone shares responsibility, and everyone must take full accountability — but only for what they control.
We use the term ‘200 per cent accountability’, which means the leader takes 100 per cent accountability for his or her behaviour, and the members of the team take 100 per cent accountability for their behaviour. This principle enables the process of challenging each other in a team to become a growth-minded one, in which challenging each other becomes useful. Without 200 per cent accountability as a principle in teams, challenger safety simply devolves into no safety or scapegoating. It is that critical. Without the principle firmly in place, relationships and teams are simply unable to overcome really difficult setbacks or challenges and learn and grow from them together.
200 per cent accountability in action
I once worked with a CEO who was struggling to get his team to perform to his ambitious standards. He told me, ‘My team members just don’t get what it means to be a high performer. I tell them clearly what to do. I tell them this is important. They agree. And then they deliver substandard work. I told them I wanted to clone myself and replace them all with me. I need someone to help me teach these people to take real ownership and accountability.’
When I interviewed his team, I discovered several problems. First, the CEO’s expectations were unclear and unrealistic. But team members did not feel psychologically safe to admit that, because they were already being accused of being incompetent.
Second, the CEO was micromanaging them while committing one of the cardinal sins of leadership and psychological safety: treating his team with disrespect by shaming and belittling them around their performance. Then the CEO undermined another of the psychological safety stages (contributor safety) by finishing their work for them, while becoming increasingly cold and distant.
Because they disliked their boss so much, they were just coasting, with no emotional connection to the company. Secretly, they couldn’t wait to see their boss fail. Furthermore, if they could just tolerate a bit of noise and abusive language from him, he did the work for them anyway. It was a perfect storm of no accountability and no growth on either side.
I explained to the CEO that he needed to take some behavioural accountability. He needed to ask himself, ‘What’s my part in this?’, because his behaviour was a significant part of the problem. It took some convincing and coaching, but he got there. When we met with the team, he acknowledged the negative impact of his behaviour and authentically apologised. We then focused on where he needed to grow and what needed to change in his behaviour. He needed to earn back the respect and trust of his people.
You can imagine how hard this was for him initially. He wanted them to change first. Eventually he agreed that he would ask for more input from his team, then set expectations using mindful agreements. He also agreed to differentiate what was truly important and what was not in his panic to motivate people. He had become trapped in reactive behaviours, insisting that everything was urgent and important.
To keep it tangible, he agreed to give people no more than three important tasks at a time. If something else became a priority, they discussed what needed to be dropped or made less important. His second big agreement was to leave people alone and let them do their work. This was scary for him because he wondered, How will I ensure quality work gets done? It created fear due to his unconscious assumption that he was the only one who could ensure quality work.
That’s when his team stepped up to take accountability. They said they would much rather be demoted, or get formal warnings if they missed critical deadlines or quality expectations, than be constantly micromanaged and shamed. He was blown away by that.
They made an agreement based on the concept of 200 per cent accountability. The CEO was 100 per cent accountable for changing his self-sabotaging behaviour. And each team member was 100 per cent accountable for delivering his or her outcomes. It was a contract of trust and accountability with clear consequences and accountability for change.
Five years later, his team’s revenue and profit had nearly doubled and he was no longer engaging in self-sabotaging behaviour.
We learned four key lessons from this experience. First, to build and maintain a high-performing, psychologically safe team, leaders must take a growth mindset towards team behavioural and performance challenges, and first ask themselves, ‘What’s my part in this?’
Second, accountability and growth are a two-way street. For the leader to safely challenge his team, he first needed to take accountability for his part in it and to change, but the team also needed to step up, take accountability and grow. Third, leaders must make mindful agreements to ensure that people truly understand what is expected of them. We can’t assume that people know.
And fourth, if agreements are clear and respect is high, it’s even possible to demote or fire people while still maintaining psychological safety in a team. In this case, when we did our first major progress check-in on how committed actions were going in the team, the team publicly agreed their boss followed through on his own committed actions while honouring the organisational value of respect. Once that first 100 per cent was established, he looked at the team members’ performance, the 100 per cent.
One of them who had not performed well was demoted that very day, but with respect and skill. The CEO did not have to resort to shaming and shouting. And the entire team felt this was an excellent demonstration of accountability and values-based leadership.