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Leading with Accountability

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Anna Greene, Group Manager, eLearning Design at Indiana University. She is a MOR program graduate.  Anna may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Allowing your team to lead from where they are–from all levels of the organization–looks great on paper. It’s a very “feel good” approach, and indeed, an expectation of this kind of culture will bring top performers into your shop. However, it does require some vulnerability on your part as a leader. If you want people to lead from all levels of the organization, you have to be relentlessly accountable to them.

Here’s a typical conversation I have had with the director of my unit, Justin. He’ll tell me, “Anna, I want your perspective on XYZ. I’ve mostly decided but want to give you the opportunity to talk me out of it.” That would be an exercise in frustration if it were only an excuse for him to practice his argument or get ahead of potential complaints. However, in our case, he is willing to let me talk him out of some decisions. To be clear, I’m only sometimes successful. And sometimes, I simply offer a resounding affirmation of his decision. But often my perspective shifts his thinking such that he adjusts his decision. And there have been a few times when he didn’t follow my advice, and he has circled back later and told me that he should have.

This is accountability in action: He admits that he can’t always see the whole picture. He acknowledged that he sometimes jumps to conclusions. He realizes that he might occasionally (gasp) be wrong!

I wish it weren’t unusual and unique for a boss to behave this way. I’ve been in countless other situations where the person in charge deflects accountability by claiming someone didn’t correctly interpret their directive.

I model the behavior I see in Justin’s management style when leading my group. My staff will not lead from where they are if I dig my heels in once I’ve decided. They will only develop and hone their gut instincts if I circle back and tell them when their advice was helpful or if I should have adopted some of it. If I don’t, they learn it’s a waste of their time to engage thoughtfully with me on the topic at hand, and they may also start to feel like their unique insights are not valuable, likely leading to disengagement.  

Of course, as always, there’s a sweet spot. I need to work on the tendency to switch it up too quickly if someone questions my strategy. The folks who have worked with me the longest know this about me. Newer folks hopefully see more of what I’ve learned to do— propose, listen, assess, and make a call, followed by observing, assessing, and closing the loop.

For a lot of us, finding that sweet spot is tricky. We want to be seen as decisive, reasonable, and empathetic leaders. Sometimes, these attributes can feel mutually exclusive. And when we feel fragile, we may come down too hard on the decisive end, digging in our heels and locking in our position to keep self-doubt at bay and plug our ears to any feedback that might be painful. In such cases, when our decisive action doesn’t pan out the way we’d hoped, we may look to place blame as a way to reduce our shame at not being good enough.

But there is another way! Inviting your team to lead from all levels of the organization gives you a deep well of perspective and expertise to draw from. Your team is your toolbox, and while you, as a leader, are the carpenter, any job you take on will be easier if you use the tools in your box. No one will doubt your carpentry skills if you occasionally admit using the wrong tool. Conversely, you may lose credibility if you often claim that the hammer is at fault for how your table turned out. I invite you to accept that you are, in fact, part of the problem–simply because you’re human. I invite you to seek guidance from all levels of the organization (diversify!) and hold yourself accountable for listening and hearing, taking concrete steps, and then, most importantly, accepting where your team’s perspective contributed (or could have contributed) to success.

The more transparent you are about what you do with your team’s input, the more you share what you’re learning from them, and the more information they will offer you that will contribute to better decision-making.

The truth is that we’re all a part of the problem, and we’re all part of the solution.

Which is hardest to keep in balance for you as a leader? Being…

●    Decisive
●    Reasonable
●    Empathetic

Last week we asked how intentional you feel currently in your work.

  • 12% said exceptionally intentional.
  • 50% said usually intentional.
  • 31% said slightly intentional.
  • 7% said not very intentional.

For most of us, we have at least some feeling of intentionality in our work. For those of you looking to grow your intentionality, consider which activities make you feel most intentional. How might you extend that to other activities? Start small.