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7 Powerful Words to Build an Accountable Culture

Merry Christmas

7 Powerful Words to Build an Accountable Culture

By John Grubbs

Culture eats strategy for breakfast!  These words from the late Peter Drucker are a powerful indictment for most aspiring leaders.  Accountability has traditionally been viewed as a single concept that is desired yet elusive for most companies.  In truth, there are two types of accountability and each must be developed independently for an organization to be successful.  Building an accountable culture requires efficacy from both perspectives.  In fact, accountability has been misdefined in today’s business vernacular.  We often use accountability and responsibility as interchangeable terms.  Who are you going to hold accountable?  Who are you going to hold responsible?  When misused in this way, both terms are really about blame. 

Accountability should be broken into two different sub-concepts.  Acute accountability is demonstrated by the situation while organizational accountability represents a culture.  An organization that holds people accountable for performance may not be effective in a particular situation.  An accountable culture demonstrates high levels of ownership and people act to achieve results.  Situational accountability is demonstrated by the conversation in a given situation.  Sound confusing?

Bill Belichick, and his pursuit of excellence in the NFL as the longtime coach of the New England Patriots, views accountability from both perspectives.  In the book, Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time, seven powerful words reflect acute accountability.  These seven words may be missed by the casual reader.  However, the magnitude of the sentence and the impact on the listener leaves no doubt regarding expectations for a given situation.  Make no mistake.  Words matter.  Mark Harmon said, “It’s a lot easier to do good work when you have good words to say”.  Following are your good words.

The seven words are:  That’s not what we are looking for.  Let’s examine these words through the lens of accountability.  “That’s not” is direct feedback about the acute behavior or situation at question.  There is no ambiguity regarding failed expectations.  “We” represents the collective expectation of the organization.  A listener will immediately realize that the outcome or behavior does not fit in with the organization as a whole.   It is in direct violation of cultural norms. “Looking for” represents an opportunity to get better moving forward.  A listener will know that a change moving forward is necessary.

In a situational context, these seven words create a powerful message for the listener.  The listener knows they did not achieve expectations and the future is open for change.  At best, the listener knows what to do next time.  At worst, the listener asks for help in either understanding or execution.  The implied message heard is, this will not fit with the organization.  Using the word “we” in place if “I” means the outcome has let the team down.  Avoiding the word “You” makes the feedback avoid blame.

The skill to separate accountability from blame is rare in most organizations.  These seven words accomplish this beautifully and simply.  A sentence with precise words says all that needs to be said.  It places the next action in the hands of the receiver to clarify and then make changes going forward.  There is no looking back.  No judgment; only expectation(s) for the future.  Next time someone fails to achieve or perform, try these words out.  Do not attempt to dilute or water them down.  Simply say, “That’s not what we are looking for” and shut up.  Do not step on your label of the situation with a follow-up statement.  Let the silence do the heavy lifting. Allow the listener to respond.  The chance of getting an excuse is minimal and you are more likely to gain a commitment to improvement or change.

It may be challenging to deploy these words at first.  Stick with it.  Practice, practice, practice and it can become your default response when confronted with anything other than expectations.  You will improve situational accountability.  Good luck!