Better leadership: how to increase your people’s accountability without losing trust

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By Serendis

October 6, 2023

Many of today’s leaders feel they’re being pulled in different directions. Leaders know the importance of increasing psychological safety in the workplace, of creating an enjoyable work environment and of meeting employees’ expectations of positive work-life balance. At the same time, leaders are facing huge pressure on deliverables while also having to reduce costs, lead change and show agility. This pressure means leaders need their team members to step up and be more accountable for work produced. But how can leaders demand greater accountability, while also maintaining trust? It turns out that accountability and trust aren’t opposing needs, and leaders should be pursuing both.

At Serendis, we’re currently working with many organisations struggling to better equip their leaders to increase team members’ accountability, while also maintaining existing levels of psychological safety and trust in teams. (By accountability, we mean an environment where team members are clear on what is required of them, they are expected to meet high standards of performance, and their results are transparent.)

There are a few reasons this is a pressing issue for organisations, including that:

  • Past leadership practices are not fit to deliver success in today’s rapid pace of change.
  • This faster pace requires business units to regularly recalibrate their key priorities and deliverables, and for leaders to consistently address these new priorities. When accountabilities aren’t clear, today’s work efforts deliver yesterday’s business goals, allowing competitors to get ahead.
  • In Australian-headquartered companies, Australian culture may also play a part. Egalitarianism can cause some leaders to want to be liked and to avoid articulating the improvements they need from team members.

Psychological safety: essential, but sometimes misunderstood

Over the last 20 years, a growing body of academic and corporate research has consistently shown the link between high psychological safety and healthy team performance. Harnessing research such as Harvard Business school professor Amy Edmonson’s “The Fearless Organization”, and the Google Aristotle experiments, Serendis has worked with thousands of leaders, upskilling them to enhance psychological safety in their teams.

(An environment of psychological safety is one where people are not limited by interpersonal fear. As a result, they can bring different perspectives, challenge ideas and take risks to try new things, be vulnerable or share issues.)

And yet, there’s a common misconception that an environment of high psychological safety creates low ambition, low standards, low goals and low accountability. Professor Edmondson – an expert on psychological safety – explains that she doesn’t see psychological safety and performance standards as two points at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Rather, leaders must pay attention to both. “We should have ambitions, we should have goals, we should set very ambitious performance standards for people… and we need to create a climate where people really know their voice is welcome,” says Edmonson.

The 2×2 matrix below is a helpful way for leaders to assess where their team members sit, and then think about the steps they can take to move staff to the high-performing quadrant (in green).

Beware though – plotting where team members sit on the matrix might not be as easy as it first appears.

Using the matrix

More than once, leaders we’ve worked with were quick to identify team members as sitting in the matrix’s blue comfort zone. The leaders perceived these team members as having very high levels of psychological safety, but as not very committed to achieving individual and team goals.

But later, in conversations between Serendis and the team members, or between the leaders and their team members, it became clear that the leader’s initial assessment was wrong. Team members self-reported sitting in the red anxiety zone; feeling hyper-focused and sometime anxious about how they could achieve goals, as well as concerned that their levels of psychological safety were too low to raise concerns and questions.

Our learning through this is to ask leaders where they think each team member would self-assess their position on the matrix if they were talking to a neutral third party. While this assessment is still based on leader perceptions, it makes leaders more thoughtful and empathetic about the team member’s experience.

Four steps to increase accountability and maintain trust

Shifting people into the high performing, adaptive zone, requires leaders to increase accountability and maintain trust. To do so, we suggest leaders follow the four steps below. Feedback from leaders we have worked with shows these steps work, allowing them to generate greater levels of accountability in their teams while maintaining trust.

1. Actively foster a growth mindset

Our preferred method here entails leaders continuously fostering a growth mindset approach in their team. Impactful practices leaders can use include:

  • Focus on the power of possibility

We are all prone to focusing more on mistakes and criticisms than on compliments, because negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones – the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as the ‘negativity bias’. Leaders can help their people correct this bias by challenging absolute language such as never and can’t, and replacing it with the power of ‘not yet’.

  • Praise effort, process and teamwork AND results

Rather than only praising the outcome, leaders should focus on each team member’s effort and the outcome. We know that working through complex, uncertain problems means there are many factors which influence success, and things don’t always work out, despite intelligent efforts. It’s overly simplistic to believe that talent leads to wins, and that noise that creates failures.

  • Encourage people to do something out of their comfort zone

Propose a challenge to the team where everyone picks one thing each month they will attempt that’s outside their comfort zone. It could be anything from speaking in public, to attending a networking event, or proposing an idea to a more senior colleague. Ensure the team know you are doing something out of your comfort zone too, and at the end of the month regroup the team to share learnings and experiences.

But the most impactful opportunity leaders often miss to bolster accountability and strengthen trust is in one-on-one meetings. Often, the goal of one-on-ones is derailed as conversations spill into focusing on trying to fix an urgent problem. We encourage leaders to schedule and regularly execute three types of conversations with each of their team members during the year:

  • “Reviewing progress” conversations
  • “Key priorities” conversations, and
  • “Career growth” conversations.

2. “Reviewing progress” conversations

We suggest leaders hold these at least once a month with each team member, with the aim of discussing what, and how, the team member has recently delivered. This is an opportunity for a learning conversation that is not solely focused on deliverables and projects but on the employee’s personal development. Leaders should prepare in advance by asking themselves:

  • What feedback do I need to give this person that they haven’t heard yet?
  • How can this be articulated with a growth mindset?

Leaders can steer the conversation forward by asking each team member:

  • What have you achieved over the last month?
  • What has gone well?
  • What could you have done better or differently?
  • What will success look like over the next month?
  • How can I support you better? What could we do differently as a team?

Leader should make sure they explicitly articulate:

  • The value of what the team member has achieved and/or delivered for the team/customers/investors/patients/the business.
  • What they could have done differently.
  • What they need to achieve next.
  • What the leader wants to see the team member focus on.

3. “Key priorities” conversations

We suggest leaders hold these at least once a quarter with each team member, with the aim of ensuring key priorities and focus areas are clear.

Leaders should prepare in advance by asking themselves:

  • What does the team member need to deliver to make me see them as successful in the next three months?
  • What are the key outputs I need to see to be comfortable with the team member’s performance?

Leaders can steer the conversation by asking each team member:

  • What will you deliver?
  • How will we measure success?
  • Which behaviours or mindset will you demonstrate?
  • What will you need from me?
  • What will you need from the team?

Leaders should make sure they explicitly articulate:

  • How the team member’s role contributes to the success of the team, and/or customers/investors/patients/the business.
  • How they measure success in the team member’s role.

4. “Career growth” conversations

We suggest leaders hold these at least every six months with each team member, with the aim of enhancing professional and personal growth.

Leaders should prepare in advance by asking themselves:

  • What do I see as this person’s potential?
  • What behaviours do they need to develop and demonstrate to grow in their career?
  • What skills and knowledge should they focus on acquiring next year?

Leaders can steer the conversation by asking each team member:

  • What skills and knowledge do you need to develop this year?
  • What projects or opportunities could help deliver useful experiences for you?
  • What behaviours/approaches do you need to enhance or develop?
  • In which circumstances will you need to be mindful of this?
  • Who/what training could help you develop these?

Pursuing trust and accountability

In today’s fast-paced business environment, the pressure on leaders to drive increased performance and accountability in their teams is unabated. But it can be perplexing for leaders to strike the right balance between accountability and trust. Too little focus on accountability can lead to targets slipping, while too aggressive a focus on accountability can drop staff motivation levels and increase attrition risks. As a Harvard Business Review article reported, “Introducing more accountability into an organisation is never easy; all too often the people you are trying to make accountable interpret your initiative as a sign that you don’t trust them.”

Following the four steps detailed above will help leaders set high performance standards for their people without eroding trust, in order to achieve business success – while maintaining a culture where people feel safe to speak up.