During a recent “Coach Approach to Managing” training workshop, I found myself in the midst of a lively discussion with a couple dozen ambitious leaders — half of them millennials — each grappling with the perplexing issue of accountability within their teams.
Zoe, a rising star manager, echoed the collective sentiment: “I’m sick of hearing excuses. My boss is breathing down my neck because we’re not hitting our metrics. What can I do to get my team to perform without having to constantly crack the whip?”
Zoe’s question resonated with the group. Everyone had faced similar challenges. Even the millennials confessed they’d only known workplaces where cracking the whip was the go-to management style. But here’s the kicker: this approach wasn’t working for them as managers. They were exhausted and they wanted to break the cycle. But they didn’t know how.
So, what’s the answer? How do you instill a culture of accountability without resorting to draconian measures?
Why Co-Designing Accountability Matters
For years, accountability was synonymous with punitive consequences — miss a target and face getting fired, poor reviews, or lost opportunities. This approach might’ve been effective when job-hopping was less common, but times have changed. Today, with employees ever-ready to seek new roles, managers must adapt.
When you acknowledge your team members as capable and engage with them as partners, you cultivate a heightened sense of accountability. This mutual respect minimizes feelings of victimization or subordination, and instead promotes a sense of agency and ownership.
Although it may require an upfront investment of time, the long-term results are worth it. This isn’t merely about nurturing a positive atmosphere. It’s a strategic approach aimed at maximizing results through increased accountability.
What We Can Learn from Marathon Training
A pivotal shift in enhancing accountability involves designing it from the outset, rather than waiting for issues to arise and then scrambling to enforce responsibility. This proactive strategy aligns closely with the principles of marathon training, where preparation and planning are key to success. Here are five lessons we can learn from the world of marathon running to elevate accountability in our teams.
- Get clear on the finish line: When you’re running a race, there’s no question where the end is. In the same way, it’s critical for all team members to understand what success looks like. When you ask your team to define the ideal outcomes at the end—be it the number of deliverables, deadlines, or revenue targets—you’re also asking them to co-own those goals. Get clear on what this project looks like when it’s done, and done well.
- Identify your mile markers: After identifying the desired outcomes, lay out a roadmap filled with mile markers to guide your team to the finish line. These benchmarks serve as your signposts along the way. Is there a critical project segment that needs to be completed by a specific date? Does management need to give their stamp of approval at another crucial juncture? By involving your team members in the establishment of these mile markers, you cultivate a collective sense of ownership, something that unilateral decision-making could never inspire.
- Check your pace: Just as a runner uses their split times as important feedback rather than as a punitive measure, progress reports serve as crucial checkpoints for the team. Whether through regular meetings or departmental updates, establish upfront the frequency with which everyone will share updates on their progress toward the predefined benchmarks. Establish from the get-go whether it’s possible to over-communicate or under-communicate, so everyone knows how best to stay on pace.
- Identify the support needed: Accountability is about more than tasks and deadlines. Team members need support. Ask them what type of “aid station” or “cheerleading” will help them meet their benchmarks. For some, that might be the equivalent of water and electrolytes—in the form of mentoring or regular check-ins. Others might thrive from cheers along the way via text. Runners more easily reach the finish line with the right support along the route. It’s best to design that support from the start, rather than try to figure it out when they’re already running out of steam.
- Celebrate Success: Everytime I started a marathon, I pictured that massage I’d be getting the next day. It was how I celebrated. Design with your team members how you’ll acknowledge their success. When employees have a say in how they’re rewarded, they’re far more likely to stay motivated. Celebration is critical to honoring the accountability for success measures that were set at the beginning. It builds trust and morale. And, who doesn’t like to be celebrated!?
When you co-design accountability, you’re making your team a part of the strategic process. This empowers them, increases their buy-in, and most importantly, enhances productivity and goal attainment. You might even get a PR!
Co-designing accountability with your team aligns with the Thoughtfully Fit practice of Balance, where you achieve alignment. The best way to achieve that alignment is to have the conversations with your team members to identify the mile markers and support needed to reach the finish line.
We know completing a marathon takes training. So, here’s a core workout for you to practice.
Pause: When you’re at the start of a project, hit the Pause button and think about accountability!
Think: What does success look like? When will we check in? What support do we need to design? What will we do if our plans fall through? How will we celebrate our milestones?
Act: Commit to what you agree to do! Follow-up when necessary and celebrate successes when they occur.
So, the next time you find yourself wanting to crack the whip to enforce accountability, consider how you can shift to partnering instead. The more you practice co-designing accountability, the easier it gets!
The same way training for a marathon makes those 26.2 miles feel easier to complete. You’ll find this approach is not only more personable but also infinitely more effective.