How NOT “Holding” Employees Accountable Improves Performance

What’s wrong with holding employees accountable? Accountability is a good thing. Isn’t it?

At the very least, it sure is a popular word in leadership circles. Next time you’re around a gathering of leaders, listen to the conversation for a while and you are sure to hear the question…. “What one thing do you wish you could do better?” And the most common answer you’ll hear is: “How can I do a better job at holding employees accountable for results?

You want this too, correct? I used to want to do the same thing. Eventually, though, I came to realize that this leadership thing is backwards. I had been thinking that the subject here was accountability. But look at the question again… “How can I do a better job at holding employees accountable for results?

The most significant word in that sentence is “holding”. The sentence is a thought-trap. It creates a problem for leaders who buy-into the notion that their job is to “hold” their employees to… _______ whatever … (you fill in the blank). It doesn’t matter if you are holding them accountable, or holding them responsible, or holding them to a standard. You’re still holding!

Neither holding employees down, nor holding them up are effective ways of leadership. Holding isn’t leading. Let go of your grip and lead!

Accepting Accountability is NOT the same as holding Accountable

If you want employees to accept accountability for results or even to seek accountability, that’s different. You can lead them to those outcomes. But you won’t get very far if you try to hold your employees to them.

So, if you don’t “hold” employees, what can you do instead? I propose three things:

  • Show that you value your employees. That you appreciate their contributions as well as their efforts. And that you value them as people, not just in terms of their role in the company.
  • Appreciate differences (don’t mistake this for Diversity). As leading Psychologist Shay McConnon puts it, “Leadership is about individualizing, not universalizing.” Differences are a source of strength. Don’t picture age here, or gender, or ethnicity–although diversity in those areas may strengthen a team. I’m really talking about diversity in ways of seeing, acting, and responding to the world. Begin to recognize the uniqueness of every employee on your team; help them to see that uniqueness in themselves. Most people don’t know the strengths of their own gifts. Help them tap into their uniqueness in ways that contribute to the company.
  • Set the stage. You don’t get accountability by holding employees to it. You gain accountability by setting the right environment where employee engagement can occur, where they want to accept more and more responsibility, where they can see and feel tangible results for their efforts. Done right, accountability is its own reward.

So get your hands off of your employees, you just may save yourself from a sexual harassment law suit. Oh sorry, that’s another story. Let’s try again, get your hands off and see employee performance soar.

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