Great leaders know they must take accountability for their behaviour. However, many leaders can miss the fact that there are two sides of accountability. 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.
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.
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 and his misguided behaviours to micromanage to remove his fear.
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.