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Creating a culture of soft responsibility in 3 steps

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I see it every week: the frustration over inflated deadlines, the I-take care-this-for-to-morrow-with-you- devotion floating into next week, the helplessness with always waiting for the same person to continue with what they said they would do. So many leaders I work with are discouraged by their culture of accountability, not only because they feel they cannot trust their reports, but also because they really want. They feel they are on a tightrope, balancing between a compassionate, inspiring leader and a hard worker with a deadline.

Accountability is an important part of the culture, but according to the Study on accountability in the workplace of Partners in Leadership (now Culture Partners), a whopping 93% of employees are “unable to align their work or take responsibility for desired outcomes.” How do effective leaders manage the tension between giving autonomy and sticking to results? How do they motivate their team while keeping an eye on the dependencies in their work output? It begins, as it ends, with clear agreements.

Related: Here’s how to foster a culture of accountability in your company

Make clear agreements

A clear agreement is an agreement with three crucial components: Who going to do what by means of when. It’s all very head nodding, and I can see how simple it sounds. It’s probably nothing new to you actually. But like most simple, important things, it is also very difficult.

Think about your current requests or tasks that need to be done. Does everyone have a clear owner, or is ownership implied or distributed among different people? Is the outcome crystal clear and ideally in the form of a deliverable so that the delivery is unambiguous? And is there clarity about when the total task or milestones should be? “This week” and “end of the day” are not specific and mean different things to different people. Contrast that ambiguity with a clear, thoughtful request: “Jane, would you agree to send me a one-page summary of product capabilities tomorrow at 5 p.m. Eastern Time?”

However, the way to get to this clarity is not as simple as just starting from scratch. Of course this clarity is valuable, but any agreement is by definition between two or more people. And this way of communicating is an agreement in itself. As a first step, take the time with your direct reports to share that you are going to make clear agreements with them. Explain what you mean by this, and ask if they agree to also make clear agreements. This gives them a chance to sign up and gives you a social contract to fall back on later.

Keep most of your appointments

The Conscious Leadership Group suggests that good leaders stick to about 90% of their commitments. Life happens and no one is perfect, but the aim is to keep agreements as often as possible. When you realize you can’t keep an agreement you’ve made, you need to act quickly to renegotiate the agreement. There’s more to renegotiating than simply letting people know you can’t keep your deal. Just as an agreement requires two or more people, so does a renegotiated agreement.

The important role of the leader here is to make and keep agreements. Establishing a culture of gentle accountability begins with this commitment. As a starting point, adhere to the highest standard of clear agreements. Include a clear who, what, and by when, then make your follow up visible. Keep your promises as a sign of sincerity.

Related: How to Increase Accountability Without Breathing People’s Necks

Clean up any broken matches

However, despite our best intentions and efforts, we will break some of our agreements. Again, this is an opportunity to lead by example and support the commitment to clear agreements. In fact, this is the main opportunity to strengthen it. Agreements will inevitably be broken, and unless they are cleared up quickly and deliberately, the obligation to make clear agreements will begin to dissolve.

The very first step is to acknowledge that you lacked integrity in your agreement. Integrity, here, acknowledging that you made a commitment to do something for a certain amount of time and you have lapsed on that commitment. It’s a heavy word, but it doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation. If I’m late for a session with a client, I simply say, “I want to acknowledge that I’m two minutes late for our meeting and that I lack integrity in my agreement to start at the last hour.”

The second step is asking what can be done to restore trust. If you’re running late for a meeting, you may just need to recommit to being on time. Being chronically late or violating a more sensitive agreement may require a more important conversation and change. This is a crucial step. Note that this is not an apology. This is a sincere acknowledgment of a broken agreement and a sincere effort to restore confidence in the future.

Related: Want Accountability Within Your Team? Start at the top

Building a culture of soft responsibility begins and ends with clear agreements. A basic conversation about meeting clear agreements, a preliminary agreement, is the starting point. The commitment then lives with your actions as a role model, and it grows with your focus on renegotiating and cleaning up broken agreements.

This is what it means to have soft responsibility. When leaders play a role as exemplars of integrity and set clear agreements for everyone, including themselves, accountability moves away from an entrenched practice of timelines and consequences. It simply becomes part of the cultural fabric and a shared way of communicating. It becomes supportive and meaningful. Good luck on your journey.

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