Until recently, I thought of “accountability” as a process defined like this:
Assigning responsibility for a task, project, or problem
Making sure people follow through on milestones and goals
Teaching people how to own up to a mistake or a missed goal
These are pretty traditional definitions, and they’re not wrong. But as a leader, accountability through the lens of these explanations always felt like I was focusing on people’s deficits and deciding things for them. It seemed that in order to hold someone accountable, I had to point out what they should do, what they might miss if they weren’t careful, or what wasn’t good enough.
As I was listening to a podcast one day, I heard it said that the truest definition of the word accountability is actually right there in the word: account for your ability.
This stopped me in my tracks! Could I reframe accountability to focus on people’s abilities instead of shortcomings? Could I give them clearer ownership based on their strengths? Absolutely yes!
What I could do was take those definitions of accountability and alter them slightly:
- Ask who has the ability to take on a task or project
- Find out what they need in order to take full control of reaching goals
- Compliment them on their problem-solving skills following a mistake
With a slightly different focus, accountability takes on a positive connotation. Instead of being concerned about what someone cannot do or what they missed, I can hold them accountable for their abilities. I can provide them the tools they need to follow through. And I can encourage their efforts to prevent or resolve problems.
I’ve realized that the more I do this, the more confident my team is. Being held accountable no longer conjures worries that something (or someone) isn’t good enough. Rather it frees them to say, “This is what I am able to contribute” or “Here’s how I worked toward this goal” or “I fixed this issue before it snowballed into something worse.” The difference may seem slight, but it’s actually huge!
I encourage you to try out this mindset shift, too. Call your people up. Ask them what they are capable of. Cheer them on as they lean into their strengths and abilities. Make “accountability” count for more than just obligation—give your team members a limitless ceiling and see what they can accomplish. 🙂
To your ability and theirs!