lesson 4: four levels of accountability

If there is a painful truth about the workplace today, it is that people are overwhelmed.  Too much information.  Too much to do.  Too little time.  In this feature, we identify four types of accountability that help high performers keep first things first.

With the perils of multi-tasking now readily accepted and books such as Gladwell’s Outliers or Colvin’s Talent is Overrated suggesting that we could all benefit from massive amounts of intentional practice to master our crafts, there is a growing argument for greater focus in the workplace.

Unfortunately, we are experiencing the opposite. The explosion of mobile and social technologies is accelerating a swell of information that passed “glut stage” a decade ago. Attention deficit is now standard.

Accountability to the rescue. Aside from accountability to God, we have long believed in the power of accountability to others to help us stay focused and meet expectations.

Until now, we viewed accountability as a principle, not a method. Simply put, we believed more is better and that the ultimate accountability is tied to results.

This may not be the case.

In a recent study of elite athletes and soldiers, we discovered that different types of accountability exist and that we can readily harness and optimize this power through a relatively small number of choice relationships.

Level 1: LEADER.

The first type of accountability is to the leader, the person who establishes direction and directs the organization’s efforts. On a sports team, this is generally the head coach. In a military unit, this would be a senior officer.

The leader may or may not have a relationship with the person experiencing the accountability, but the desire to seek approval of the leader, or equally to avoid scrutiny, will positively impact his focus and consistency.

Level 2: MENTOR.

The second type of accountability is to a mentor, or position coach. This person is directly involved with the development of the individual’s skills and routinely provides constructive feedback.

Level 3: TEAM.

Team accountability involves transparency of actions and behaviors to peers and colleagues who share a common objective. Where teamwork is vital for success, particularly on the battlefield, team accountability is highest and most impactful. The phrase “code red” in the movie, “A Few Good Men”, comes to mind.

Level 4: FANS.

Athletes experience a sort of crowd-sourced type of accountability few of us can comprehend: fans. Fans are people who watch you work, take a sometimes intense interest in your results, but who don’t actually participate in the game itself.

Upon reflection, we discovered that soldiers fight for family and countrymen, neither of whom join them on the battlefield. Sharing your work with people interested in your success, even if they are not part of your organization, can significantly impact your resolve to stay focused.

What about accountability to oneself?

In 2003, Mark Newton, founder of IRUNURUN, learned of two major perils of accountability to oneself.

While building a solo insurance practice, he struggled to gain momentum in the marketplace.

He began tracking completion of 6 routine weekly business and professional development activities only to discover that his completion rate in the first two months averaged below 50%.

Once he sustained a completion of 90% for six months, his business results took off.

Lesson 1: We all possess an infinite capacity for self-deception. We truly believe we are more disciplined than we are. Only through accurate measurement can solo accountability survive.

After three years, Mark somewhat reluctantly joined an accountability group with two friends. His initial response to their request to become accountability partners, “Just beat yourself up. That’s what I do.”

They didn’t give in, and instead they insisted that team accountability would improve their performance and prevent them from quitting. After a single meeting to review their performance, Mark became more consistent.

Lesson 2: Accountability to oneself diminishes with time.

In summary, we believe that lack-of-focus is driving a radical divide between peak performers and others today, and the ability to create and sustain disciplined focus on the things that matter most is vital.

Fortunately, the habits and environmental factors that help professional athletes and elite soldiers maintain focus and consistency are readily available to us all.

Please comment. What have you done to get and stay more accountable?