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ATD Blog

Mind the Gap: 3 Skills to Create an Accountability Culture

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Accountability is hot. Scour the web and you’ll find innumerable articles that speak of cultural accountability—what it looks like, how important it is, and how to hire accountable people. And yet, most leaders say accountability is one of the competencies they lack—but need—the most.

That’s because when it comes to quickly and candidly addressing issues like broken promises, violated expectations, or bad behavior, most of us clam up rather than speak up. And our silence costs us big time.

The health and success of any team or organization can be measured by the lag time between employees identifying and discussing problems—the accountability gap. VitalSmarts research shows an accountability gap lasting three or fewer days costs up to $5,000 in lost time and resources as employees ruminate about problems instead of speaking up. When an accountability gap reaches five days or more, an estimated $25,000 is wasted. The sunk costs of silence are shocking.

So why are employees so tongue-tied? According to the study of 792 professionals, the primary reason people don’t speak up at work relates to a lack of social support. When employees don’t feel safe to share concerns, they keep quiet. Specifically, they fail to speak up because they:

  • Don’t believe others would support them, leaving them socially stranded.
  • Expect retaliation, regardless of any laws or regulations to prohibit such actions.
  • Are afraid speaking up might damage their career.

In other words, people don’t want to be the Lone Ranger. But organizations can address this silence by normalizing accountability practices. When employees feel socially supported, they hold each other accountable up and down the chain of command. The practice builds on itself. And the research confirms that in organizations where the accountability gap is short, teams are more likely to innovate, execute on plans, engage employees, and retain top talent.

So how can you close the gap between people seeing something and saying something? Both leaders and employees must make the organization a safe place to speak up as well as improve their dialogue skills for doing so. Here are three dialogue skills to get started.


Master My Stories

When it comes to addressing questionable behavior, most of us tell ourselves one of two stories: the person either doesn’t care or is incapable of meeting our expectations. Each story informs a feeling—usually one of offense or contempt—and our poor response leads to dismal results.

So how do you master your stories? Start with “me” first. Separate your stories from the facts and reflect on what you want from the conversation. Before confronting someone, ask yourself:

  • How have I contributed to this challenge?
  • What might the other person be facing that is contributing to this challenge?
  • Are there variables I’m not seeing?


Convey Positive Intent

People don’t get defensive because of what you’re saying; they get defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. So, begin by stating your positive intentions. Avoid insincere compliments such as “You’re great” or “We sure do love having you here,” and don’t skirt the topic you want to address. Be frank and sincere by establishing mutual purpose and mutual respect:

  • Mutual Purpose—Demonstrate that you care about their problems, goals, struggles, and successes.
  • Mutual Respect—Demonstrate you care and have respect for them.

Describe the Gap

After you’ve mastered your stories and conveyed positive intent, it’s time to describe the gap—to point out the discrepancy between expectation and performance. How you do so makes all the difference in whether the conversation continues effectively. So stick with the facts—things you can see, hear, observe, and measure. When you stick to facts, your stories, assumptions, and interpretations stay out of the picture. Here’s how:

  • Stay external. Describe what’s happening outside your head, not your conclusions or feelings going on inside. Explain what, not why. Facts tell us what’s going on; conclusions tell us why you think it’s important.
  • Gather facts. Don’t rely on hearsay conclusions. Do your homework and gather the facts before holding an accountability discussion.
  • Avoid “hot” words and emotionally loaded descriptions. For example, “You’re using a hostile tone of voice,” or “You carelessly left out three slides.” Instead, describe the observable details of the behavioral gap. Cut out the guesswork.

When a disappointment, broken promise, violated expectation, or bad behavior stands between you and results you’re trying to achieve, it’s time to hold someone accountable. How well—and how quickly—you do so spells the difference between peace and turmoil, profit and loss, success and failure.

To learn more about the research behind accountable cultures and the skills for building one, visit our website for your copy of the complete guide.

About the Author

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is the vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a Top 20 Leadership Training company. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.

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"Mutual Purpose—Demonstrate that you care about their problems, goals, struggles, and successes.
Mutual Respect—Demonstrate you care and have respect for them."
We recently rolled out Crucial Conversations at my organization. One of the tools used to help clear up misunderstandings, which can negatively impact engagement, focuses on how to create Mutual Purpose or ensure Mutual Respect. It is nice to see that this supports accountability as well.
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Very helpful as it relates to providing feedback in a manner that demonstrates Accountability! thx!
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Far too often, an employee's genuine concerns get dismissed as "emotional" or "because they have an agenda". These presumptions create a culture of indifference and poor accountability. Leaders must be willing to listen, even if it means filtering through some of the noise, and act. Then, take a few moments and help that person with their story. This is a developed skill and one that demands feedback.
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