Accountability: Relational Commitment or Task Commitment

Sometimes people get confused about what accountability really means. Accountability is simply keeping your commitments to people — nothing more and nothing less. You are not accountable to things. You are accountable to people, based on the commitments you make to them.

One of the most important commitments leaders can make is a commitment to a safe space for their people to work in. Sometimes this commitment gets undermined or even destroyed because of confusion about the precise nature of the leader’s commitment.  All too often, leaders channel their commitment through a task filter…rather than through a relational filter.

A task-focused commitment is focused first, last, and always on a narrowly-defined to-do list, and whether the team member in question has completed every item on that list exactly as you would have. It’s also known as micromanaging. This kind of commitment feels comfortable to a lot of managers but typically feels less comfortable to the employees who report to them. The problem with the task-driven focus is that it doesn’t support employees very well: it deprives them of autonomy, trust, and the capacity to discover things for themselves. It’s commitment to the manager’s sense of control and domination first, and commitment to the person second, if at all. And you know what? That doesn’t make employees feel safe. It makes them feel like means to an end – which is, let’s face it, what they really are in this situation.

A relational commitment, on the other hand, is a commitment to the relationship over time. It’s longer-term. This kind of commitment is all about me, the leader, making a big enough, consistent enough investment in our working relationship to ensure that you feel safe enough and happy enough to learn and grow and improve in the job over time, feel truly safe working with me, and eventually come to feel full ownership of the job. Notice that this is the exact opposite of the task-focused commitment. This commitment is all about the leader looking out for what is best for the individual. It’s not about trying to use accountability to get “stuff” done for the leader.

If I’m the leader, my relational commitment is all about my support of you as a person, not about one of the items on your to-do list. It means I hired you, and I take full responsibility for that decision to bring you into the organization. As a result, I trust you. Specifically, I trust you to understand the goals we’ve agreed on, understand the resources available to you for achieving those goals, and to let me know if you need other resources. Last but not least, I trust in  your commitment to me to get done what needs to get done, in a timely manner – and in the way that makes the most sense to you. The reason you want to produce for me is simple: you know that I am here for you, that I actually care. You know that I want you to excel. You know that I want you to discover your true, and best, potential.

Assuming that we both understand all that – and shame on me for hiring you if it turns out that we don’t – the very best way I can follow through on my relational commitment to you is to:

a) get out of your way and let you do the job I hired you to do, and

b) support you as you learn things along the way.

So in the relational model, I’m not micromanaging. I’m empowering. Why is the relational commitment better than the task-focused commitment? Simple. Great employees will stick around once you make a relational commitment to them and follow through on that commitment…but they’ll leave if you focus only on getting them to do the job exactly as you’d do it.

Do you truly care about each of the people you lead? If so, you’ve got the foundation of relational accountability – not just task-driven accountability – in place for your team and your organization

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November 2019
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