Stop blaming me and calling it "accountability"


How can leaders hold colleagues accountable without making them feel blamed?

This is one of the most common questions we get when working with leaders.

In one global tech company, the CEO said to Neel, "Why don't my people hold themselves accountable? We have all the usual processes, like OKRS and performance reviews, but accountability feels lower than ever. Instead, people feel like they're being blamed."

Feeling blamed is the opposite of feeling accountable. If the traditional operating model doesn't create accountability, then what does?

To build a high-performing culture, everyone needs to understand what accountability really means and how to create it the right way - and at scale.

Controlling versus supportive accountability

That very same tech CEO is in shockingly good physical shape given his unbelievable workload. I asked him how he does it.

"I have an amazing personal trainer," he said. 

"Does the personal trainer take your body measurements?" I asked. 

"No, he doesn't," the CEO replied.

"Does he get you out of bed in the morning to go to the gym"

"No, he doesn't do that either."

"So if he doesn't hold you accountable to outcomes, and he doesn't hold you accountable to compliance, then how is he helping you get fit, and why do you pay him so much?" I asked.

This CEO thought about it for a moment, and zeroed in on what keeps him accountable to performance on his fitness goals:

"When I'm at the gym, my trainer does a few things: he keeps me motivated; he makes sure I'm doing the right exercises at the right times; and he makes sure that I'm doing them well, and not sacrificing my form."

The answer to accountability became clear. This CEO realized that controlling accountability is fundamentally different from (and less effective than) supportive accountability.

To create a culture of accountability in your organization, there are three critical steps:

  1. Motivation has to come first
  2. Focus on behaviors and habits
  3. Create a chain of accountability

① Motivation has to come first 

During the pandemic, with less exercise and travel, Neel gained some weight.

Which of the following two scenarios feels more motivating to help Neel lose weight?

  • Scenario 1: Neel is fine with his extra weight. One day, Lindsay sees him eating some ice cream and points out the negative effects that it will have on him.
  • Scenario 2: Neel asks Lindsay to be his accountability partner to lose weight, realizing that the behaviors will be challenging. One day, Lindsay sees him eating some ice cream and points out the negative effects that it will have on him.

What's the difference here? After all, Lindsay's actions are the same. But in the second scenario, Lindsay is reinforcing a goal that Neel felt personally motivated to achieve. So instead of seeming like a scold, Lindsay seems like a helpful, caring partner. She is engaged in supportive accountability, or supportive coaching.

The worldwide bestseller, Primed to Perform, describes the science of motivation and performance. If you want to build a high-performing culture, we recommend reading it. The core message is simple: to create high performance toward any goal, people must feel play, purpose, and potential for their work, not emotional pressure, economic pressure, or inertia.

For example, a research team wanted to see what would most create self-accountability toward healthy behaviors like using sunscreen and eating fiber. They found that fear - e.g., I might die - and blind optimism - e.g., I feel hopeful - don't create self-accountability. On the other hand play - e.g., I feel excited by the challenge of figuring this out - and purpose - e.g., it is within my control to do this - actually do lead to people holding themselves accountable.

To apply these insights to your team, you must set up the right foundation for accountability.

Here are a few specific steps:

First, take your role descriptions seriously. =The problem we see with most role descriptions is that they fail to describe the adaptive behaviors required to perform distinctively. For example, a seller's role description might mention their tactical sales funnel, but then fail to describe the nuanced, often collaborative problem solving needed to sell well.

Second, understand each colleague's play profile. Everyone has preferences for what to work on and how. This is your play profile. To make things easy for everyone, we use just two questions to help people understand their play profiles:

Typically, when a person has to participate in work that is outside their play profile - especially diagonal to their box in the table above - they will need extra supportive coaching.

For example, this is a real Sales team using the Factor platform, which gathers and shares colleagues' play profiles as they use Factor to manage their work. Factor reveals that everyone in this team prefers the Galvanizer profile, except for one person. For a Sales team with a well-developed, collaborative process, this makes perfect sense most of the time.

However, this of team of tactically-inclined Galvanizers has hit a challenge that requires creative problem solving. They're perfectly capable of solving it, but because of their preferences, most of this team will likely choose to fill their time with tactical work, and then claim that they don't have time for group problem solving. This is where a skilled leader can predict where they will need to be more supportive in their coaching.

To address this specific situation, the leader might try some of the following:

  • Point out to the team that the current challenge requires stepping outside of their play profiles (and use the visual aid above to make this clear)
  • Remind the team of the importance of solving the challenge. How will this affect the customer? How will this affect the team's mission?
  • Make the challenge interesting by framing out its parameters and phrasing it as a fascinating question. (For more advice on how to engage a team in complex problem solving, click here.)

Third, start building self-accountability at recruiting, onboarding, and the early moments of team forming. Help prospective and new recruits understand their play profiles. Then, as they get started with the work, ask them to self-identify where they might need more supportive coaching.

② Focus on behaviors and habits

We once helped a chief revenue officer turn around the performance of an enterprise sales team. She mentioned that for the most part, everyone was completing all of their required tasks, but revenue was still on a steady decline. Associates were making their 15 calls and 3 pitch decks per week, but revenue was still lower than it needed to be.

I asked her to review each associate's most recent pitch deck and let me know what she found.  

After reading the decks, she realized that none of them had even a speck of client-specific thinking. They were all just boilerplate, off-the-shelf materials that did not offer any customized or relevant solutions.

How could this have happened?

This was a classic case of "task accountability" creating a check-the-box mindset - an all too common occurrence. It's like seeing someone at the gym doing their 3 sets with 10 reps each, but with no incremental weight or effort.

We see this all the time in software development, where engineers are given tasks - typically in the form of "tickets" - asked to allocate "points" to each task as an estimate of the time it will take, and track progress via a "burndown chart" as they put their heads down and execute. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where the amount of work accomplished grows to fit or exceed whatever time scope was set aside for it, with very little room for pausing, questioning, reprioritizing, or problem solving. This act of performance art leads to repetitive and painful renegotiations.

This is the wrong way to create accountability.

Instead of focusing on task completion, focus on learning velocity.

Here's how:

First, break down the team's goal into problems to solve. This is perhaps the most important step and yet the one teams skip most often.

Here is a marketing team at a tech company that uses the Factor platform to manage performance. While they have good awareness from their target buyers, they struggle to get buyers to strongly consider their product. Their first step was to break that into problems to solve:

With their problems clearly defined, the marketing team can move on to solving them.

Second, engage the team in ideation, not task creation. Here the marketing team started sharing their ideas for how to solve the problem. Because ideas are tightly connected to problems, colleagues don't lose sight of the "why" behind their work. It is exponentially more interesting for the team, and they are much more likely to solve the problem by pausing to think creatively before going into planning mode.

Third, coach the team on how to move fast on their ideas. Factor automatically generates velocity chart based on colleague activity. This makes it easy to see where the team might be stuck, telling leaders where they should step in for some supportive coaching.

Fourth, reflect on completed work before moving on to the next thing. This is the second most commonly skipped step. Did the team's ideas work, or not? Why?

If teams are task-oriented, they will view their job as done when the task is done, their code is pushed to prod, their blog post is published, or any number of other markers of task completion.

However, with impact-oriented self-accountability, a team's work isn't done until they learn from its impact.

This is why the last step in the default workflow in the Factor platform is, "Reflect". Reflection reminds colleagues to hold themselves accountable to the learning.

③ Create a chain of accountability

The habits of supportive accountability are not "set-it-and-forget-it".  (Believe me, I wish they were... but they're not.) It takes consistent energy from leaders to ensure that habits don't atrophy.

But leaders can't just provide supportive accountability themselves - they also need to receive it. Therefore, the leaders of leaders - all the way up to CEOs - must have their own habits of supportive accountability for the leaders they coach.

Supportive accountability of leaders is quite hard and requires continuous problem solving. Senior leaders need "smoke signals" that they can use to quickly identify when a team is struggling - before that team has to send up a flare.

Our research has taught us that companies can create supportive accountability for leaders using just four critical metrics:

  • Inclusivity - what percentage of the team is engaged in problem solving?
  • Velocity - how fast are teams collaborating and driving ideas?
  • Motivation - are teams feeling motivated for their work? What motives are driving them?
  • Habits - which high-performance habit does the team want to improve next? (For more information on the habits of high-performing teams, see Steps 6 and 7 here.)

With the right systems in place, leaders can proactively see where they should invest their precious coaching time - rather than waiting for a disaster.

Don't fall for the silver bullet

Many leaders hope to find a silver bullet that will create accountability. "Perhaps if we dial the knobs of our compensation system just right, we can have the perfect recipe for accountability." Unfortunately, thousands of studies - ranging from domains as diverse as restaurant tipping and student test taking - have no shown that this is simply not how performance motivation works. 

The only path to performance accountability is to manage supportive leadership at scale.

Click here to learn how to create supportive accountability at your org with Factor.

And, as always, feel free to reach out if you would like to connect.

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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