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Accountability and the Bermuda Triangle

Many leaders struggle with three related activities. Think of them as the "Manager's Bermuda Triangle" - where leadership skills tend to mysteriously go missing:

Mock Bermuda Triangle of Feedback, Dialogue, and Accountability
(1) Giving feedback, (2) facilitating difficult dialogue, and (3) instilling accountability form the triangle.

These activities are grouped together because they all involve engaging with other people on topics where opinions may likely differ. They are also grouped together because improving your skills on one of them will improve your skills on all of them: build trust, invest empathy, speak with honesty, address challenges.

I've already shared some thoughts on the first two, so below I will focus on accountability.

First off, a note on the vital importance of accountability: in partnership with Roster, I analyzed the results of over 250 executive evaluations (the population here is executive leadership team members at PE-backed organizations). A key question in the survey is: "does the executive consistently deliver to the targeted results?". Of more than 60 leadership skills, the number one skill that correlates to consistent delivery is... "does the executive hold people accountable?"

Accountability as a Team Sport

For many managers, accountability is mysterious and frightening. For others it is a whip that they loudly crack. In both scenarios, accountability connotes blame and punishment, and is therefore delivered top-down through formal or informal power hierarchies. In these organizations, accountability does not move horizontally (among peers), upwards (from managee to manager) or diagonally (from one team manager to another team), and thus the overall organization is weaker and less coordinated.

On highly productive teams, accountability is seen and delivered as an act of kindness and empowerment. Accountability is a group effort, wherein all members of a team are responsible for holding all other members of the team to account. Therefore, accountability moves freely throughout the enterprise, increasing alignment and collaboration.

Accountability done well takes the place of micro-management and intervention. It is the ultimate sign of respect and trust.

A Simple Guide to Accountability

How can you turn accountability into a personal and team strength?

As a setup, let's understand what accountability is at it's core:

Accountability is an account of what is happening... that's it.

Holding accountable means asking for an update on what is happening.

Being accountable means providing an update on what is happening.

In order to instill this form of accountability:

(1) Align on a shared goal. Without a shared goal or vision of success, accountability is destined to flounder. A shared goal helps anchor by providing a context in which to discuss progress and growth. Without it, accountability conversations will tend to feel one-sided and naggy.

(2) Get clear on who's doing what. Most accountability conversations fail before they even begin, because we don't have clear conversations about roles and responsibilities. Be painfully explicit in these conversations. Ask the simple questions that feel annoying to ask ("who, exactly is responsible for this?", "by when will you do that?", "what is the deliverable?").

(3) Ask the accountability question: Once you've done the above, the accountability part is easy... simply ask "what's happening with [xyz]?" And then, have a dialogue about the answer until you have shared clarity. If your accountability question is met with avoidance, defensiveness, or excuses, then you don't have clarity. Steer the conversation back to the original question, including a reminder of the shared goal and aligned responsibility if helpful.

When accountability alone is not enough

The above is all there is to accountability! It can be deliciously simple and help you in all of your relationships, with managers, managees, peers, and friends.

However, in some relationships and circumstances, the accountability question alone may not be enough. You may need to turn up the dial.

One add-on to accountability is an impact statement. An impact statement steers accountability towards feedback. In an impact conversation, you describe the impact (positive or negative) that the accountability event is having on you or on other team members.

A second add-on to accountability is a pattern observation. Pattern observation is when you thread together multiple accountability conversations to help an individual see long-term behavior patterns and raise their self-awareness. Again, patterns can be either positive or negative. We are remarkably bad observers of our own behavior, so patterns that seem obvious to you may not have occurred to the recipient.

A final add-on to accountability is clarifying consequences. These conversations are important when you are in a decision-making role and may need to make changes to roles or responsibilities based on performance. You should only clarify consequences after several lower-stakes accountability conversations have occurred with no change in behavior. When you clarify consequences, be clear about what needs to change, and what will occur if it does or does not.

That's all. Happy accountability instilling!


We cover the entire Manager's Bermuda Triangle in Part 2 of our 12-week management training course. If you're interesting in leveling up the leadership behaviors in your organization, reach out to for more details.


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