The very idea of holding someone to account tends to make people bristle with apprehension and fear regardless of whether they are the one holding or the one being held to account. We seem to have developed a belief that the purpose of holding someone to account is to make sure they know they did something wrong and/or are to blame and make sure they pay the consequences.
Holding someone to account all too often seems to be equated with bringing someone to justice in both context and practice.
However, justice and accountability are, in fact, very different. The pursuit of justice begins after a crime has been committed. Failing to meet a deadline, going over budget or the vast majority of failures to be accountable in the everyday operations and interactions of an organization are rarely crimes.
When we think about holding someone to account we are usually thinking about what happens after someone has failed to deliver as promised. We all too often approach it as though we are supposed to “bring down the hammer” and deliver the consequences as if we were the judge and jury delivering a verdict.
After all, shouldn’t people “pay” for their mistakes? Perhaps, but what about ensuring they learn from their mistakes or the missteps that led to their failure? And how many times can failure to deliver as promised in today’s fast paced and complex world truly be blamed on a single person anyway?
What if holding someone to account is actually the process of holding them up to be the best they can be every step of the way rather than hammering them down after they fail?
The pursuit of accountability actually begins the moment two people enter into an agreement. If any misstep or failure comes as a surprise after the fact there is work to do on how you work together.
Holding a person to account is about supporting them in being accountable so they can deliver on what they promise, It’s about being there from the moment the agreement is made to the moment it is complete, not just showing up after the fact to keep score and deliver punishment or reward. It is a way of being proactive for the purpose of creating a win for them, for you and ultimately for your organization.
When someone cannot or does not keep their promises consistently for whatever reason it may be time to have another conversation to determine if this person belongs in the position they are in. But that’s the step you take after holding them to account has failed, rather than the last act of holding someone to account.
Accountability is not about justice. It is about working together towards both success and satisfaction for everyone involved. And when you do fail the focus of someone being accountable is on learning from the past and dertermining what will we do next rather than figuring out who to blame so justice can be served.
Leaders hold people to account for being and doing their best. Consider that the level of accountability demonstrated by the people with whom you work is a reflection of the effectiveness of your leadership. How well are you doing?