Accountability means keeping your commitments to people. Pretty simple, right? Well, it should be, especially for leaders. Leaders who are accountable make a point of fulfilling their own commitments to people first. They make their own commitments the starting point, the priority, in any relationship. Why? Because they know that supporting their relationships with team members is the only effective means of inspiring accountability up and down the organization.
Leaders who are not accountable, on the other hand, tell lies that are meant to manipulate the people who report to them into doing what the leader wants. Here are some of the most common lies unaccountable leaders tell.
- “This isn’t personal. It’s business.” If we have a working relationship with an employee, that is personal. We are a person. They are a person. We are connected, based on the fact that we work together. That is the definition of a relationship: the state of being connected. Saying “it’s business” and pretending those two words mean there is no relationship is just an excuse. It is meant to cover the fact that we do not care whether or not the relationship is lousy. It is also meant to cover the fact that we do not care about the person! Saying this kind of thing destroys the commitment to tell the employee the truth (because we are denying that a personal relationship exists when it clearly does), and it also destroys the commitment to stand by the employee, even when all hell breaks loose. People have a right to expect us to fulfill these commitments, even without us saying them out loud.
- “I have 43 problems, and each one has a first name.” This is simply not true. The person is not your problem! The state of the relationship may be a problem. The obstacles connected to the project you are working on may be problems. The tactical assignments connected to that project may be a problem, because they may not have been made properly. The human being you are in the relationship with is not the problem. Unaccountable leaders say this kind of thing to discourage people from raising important issues in the relationship. They say this to make people fear being added to the list of “problem people”! If you fall into the trap of saying this, you just may be the problem. You hired those people, you were responsible for the training and development of those people, and you allowed those people to stay. Saying this not only shuts down communication, it also undercuts the critical commitment to support people when there are faults and failures, in addition to when there are successes. People have a right to expect this, too.
- “Just shut up and do your job.” Implied in this rude, demotivating command is the idea that it is possible for the employee to do the job without communicating with the leader. A common variation is “I’m paying you to do a job, not to tell me how you feel.” Here again, the unaccountable leader is pretending either that the personal relationship does not exist or that the quality of the relationship does not matter. That is untrue. In addition, this lie is so toxic and aggressive that it constitutes a personal attack, which means the leader is disregarding the commitment to ensure a safe place to work. We should not have to say out loud that we are committed to making sure people feel safe at work. We should just live that commitment. Every day.
Here is the big takeaway from all this: Accountability can only be inspired. It can never be mandated. The three leadership lies you’ve just read all attempt, and fail, to mandate accountability. Steer clear of them — and fulfill your own commitments first!