Creating Accountability with Words

Roger Schwarz

Leaders emphasize accountability, but sometimes they undermine the very accountability they seek. Here are two examples:

“Did you get a chance to . . . ?”

I often hear leaders check to see whether others have accomplished a task by asking, “Did you get a chance to . . .?” I used to ask this question too, until a group of police chiefs broke me of the habit. I was helping the group learn how to manage conflict and started by asking, “How many of you had a chance to read the article I gave you?” To my pleasant surprise, all 50 hands went up. “That’s impressive,” I said. “This is the first group where everyone has read the article.” Just then, one of the police chiefs spoke up. “Roger, you didn’t ask us if we read the assignment; you asked us if we had a chance to read it. We all had a chance.” “You’re right,” I said.” Let me try this again. How many of you read the assignment?” This time only about one-third of the chiefs raised their hands.

I realized I had asked, “Did you have a chance to . . .” because I was trying to save face for those people who might not have completed the assignment. But, in doing so, I wasn’t asking what I really meant and I was not asking my group to be accountable.

“Some of you . . .”

I’ve watched leaders as they talk to their teams, concerned about certain team members’ work. The leader says, “Some of you are not . . .” What she is thinking is, “Jan, Paulo, and Marie, you’re not doing this well and it’s creating a problem for me.” By not identifying the team members, the leader hopes to save face for them and avoid raising a difficult issue. But by being vague, she doesn’t hold the three team members accountable. And the other team members wonder whether the leader is talking about them. The results: misunderstanding, defensiveness, and a missed chance to create commitment to change.

When you avoid being specific and don’t say what you mean, you miss the opportunity to hold others accountable and to be accountable to others.

Originally published September 2010