Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

The Long and Short View of Accountability

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a question about accountability conversations and what to value more. Should I allow the person I want to hold accountable to save face by accepting their version of what happened, as long as I am confident that the misstep will not happen again, or should I push until they acknowledge and admit that they did wrong?

Wrestling with Responsibility

Dear Wrestling,

Let me begin by sharing a story from my childhood. When I was eight years old, for some reason I thought it would be cool to have glasses, even though I had twenty-twenty vision. My mother took me to my regularly scheduled eye exam. As foolish as I was, I was smart enough to know that you don’t go and fail miserably. So, when I saw an E, I said F. When I saw an I, I said T. When they showed me an O, I said Q and so forth. In the end, the optometrist informed my mother that I would need glasses. With an expression of surprise and subdued enthusiasm, I picked out my frames from a wall of choices.

I can’t remember how long I wore my glasses or when the novelty wore off. I have now aged, and I no longer have twenty-twenty vision. The glasses I now wear not only remind me of the value of good vision, but also of the challenges that come when it is impaired.

Great leaders have great vision—the ability to see situations clearly and the impact these situations will have on future outcomes. Often, for many reasons, leaders suffer from impaired vision. Some leaders are nearsighted, having the ability to see objectives and situations that are close. Others are farsighted and can properly see objectives that are far away. When it comes to accountability, the goal of every leader should be twenty-twenty vision. We should be able to see each situation for its ability to impact objectives that are both near and far.

The nearsightedness of accountability has to do with the immediate results that we seek. The farsightedness of accountability has to do with relationships and processes. If we focus too much on one and not enough on the other, that means our vision is impaired, and our decisions and results may suffer.

For example, an immediate resolution may come with a cost, including weakened relationships and fractured processes even though it allows us to achieve desired outcomes and results. On the other hand, if we are farsighted and focus only on relationships and processes we may jeopardize the results we seek.

Let’s look at your situation with a lens that allows us to clearly see the situation up close and far away. Allowing your peer to “save face” and hoping or trusting that the problem won’t happen again may allow you to achieve the immediate results you seek, but will doing so come at a cost?

What will be the impact should the misstep happen again? And what about your relationship? Will it be easier or harder to address these kinds of situations in the future? I’ve heard it said that we teach others how to treat us. How we deal with accountability issues sets a precedent for future encounters.

With the proper lenses and twenty-twenty vision, we step up to situations like this with an eye on immediate results as well as long-term processes and relationships. Additionally, by making sure accountability is not blurry, we prevent future blindness.

Accountability is about more than making sure people do what they say they will do. True accountability is about helping others be the best version of themselves. It is about helping them make their biggest and best contributions, today and in the future.

As leaders, we can help others identify blind spots so they can more clearly see and achieve objectives that are near and far. We get to influence them and play a part in their personal and professional development. That takes vision. New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink said, “Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible. Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one’s sights and pushing toward the horizon.” Warren G. Bennis, an American scholar adds, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

I hope this improves your view of accountability and helps as you consider how to handle accountability in the future.

What do readers think? If you have suggestions or ideas, tell us in the comments.


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12 thoughts on “The Long and Short View of Accountability”

  1. Dawn Thompson

    With regard to accountability, does the person really need to admit that “they did wrong”? Perhaps a better understanding of why the individual made the choice – the impetus, the back story, the relevant details. If that individual can openly discuss the REASON(s), then a better understanding may be gained to make a better choice in the future and be accountable to the knowledge of why the choice was made and why a better path was not chosen. We can only control our own behaviors, right? So, help lead that person down the right path; the path of understanding the choice and the outcome.

    1. Marie

      This is the EXACT question my team and I face time and time again. I was SO excited to read and share with my leadership team! This is our top employee experience focus this year. This is also the first and only post I’ve read that I was sorely disappointed in. I will be rereading and doing my own personal exploring on this. Thanks for the reminder that there is no easy answer or standard approach. Also a reflection that some leadership talents are gifted and not taught.

      1. Marie

        *This was meant to be a general reply, not a reply to Dawn!! 🙂

  2. Mia F Morosoff

    Without necessarily pushing the person to acknowledge that they did something wrong, you can listen to ‘their version’ and tell them how you see things, your version of what happened. Hearing your viewpoint may not lead to a specific outcome but possibly it will result in a conversation about what happened and how to avoid similar occurrences in the future.

  3. tom benzoni

    I’m not sure if this is oppositional defiant disorder, but I do have a question about leadership. I wonder if there isn’t a fundamental attribution bias that somebody in leadership is, of necessity, intrinsically correct. Is it possible we could have someone in leadership who is not competent?
    Part of this is from the point of view of an ER doc of 40 years of experience. I’ve seen a lot of amateur leadership.
    Tom benzoni

    1. Dawn Thompson

      Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding!! @Tom Benzoni – 100% as I have witnessed this firsthand in my industry. People have a way of “using the right language” to paint themselves a leader, until the true test of action happens and the results are less than stellar.

      1. Tabitha Adkins

        Tom and Dawn! wow you are right on the money! I am dealing with this on a daily basis. Just because you have the degree and the status does not make you equip to lead. I am constantly protecting and taking up for staff because my leader is a bull in a china closet. She is right and this is the way it is done. She sees staff as an asset to be used as she sees fit. No leadership skill.

  4. Sarah R,

    In my organization, we have performance goals centered around accuracy. We recently implemented a system of classifying the root cause of an error. We have 5 classifications: 1) Omission, e.g., forgetting to do something; 2) Commission, i.e., doing a task incorrectly; 3) Rule based, i.e., failure to apply established rule(s); 4) Knowledge based, i.e., failure to apply knowledge learned; and 5) Intentional deviation. Identifying the broader classification helps drive the conversation between manager and employee and de-personalizes the error somewhat. It presents an opportunity to have an honest discussion about training, procedures, and workload; which hopefully invests the employee in the solution.

  5. Kevin Crandall

    Great response Scott. I strive to view accountability as, literally, the ability to account for (or see) success and failure. This makes feedback a service I may render personally or build into the program/project/process. As a leader, I am responsible to set expectations for success and how we’ll account for it. Then, I must set about managing the feedback loops to enable everyone involved to account for our progress toward success. Of course, it all starts with me being able to account for my own success (or failure) as a leader. That has to be built into the program–or else I am, by definition, not accountable. As I said, still striving.

  6. Charles S Charman

    Thanks once again for the wise words Scott. This will be very useful the next time I am faced with a dilemma over accountability.

  7. Julinda

    I don’t feel like the answer was very helpful! Also I agree with the comments that leadership is not always correct (or competent).

  8. Andy

    I believe in order to be a good leader, opinions should be taken from all members of the team. Then an assessment can be made with several possibilities for the best outcome. After the decision is made, a good leader will explain to the team why this decision was made.

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