Accountability as Performance Art Isn’t Working
(and what to do about it)
As work moves away from only happening in home office spaces, you may be grappling with how to lead successfully in hybrid workplaces. In particular, you may wonder if employees are fully productive while not working under your watchful eye.
Clearly, “leading by walking around” won’t work in hybrid-work times. But let’s be clear: for many of us, past practices of accountability and productivity have been largely performative and not regularly effective. This is a great moment to confront some old assumptions – and use new approaches to create true, shared accountability within teams. We’ll want to find ways to express more curiosity with each other. We’ll want to work more intentionally and explicitly to establish clear and transparent expectations. And we’ll want to develop new skills for both demonstrating and asking for accountability in seeking shared outcomes.
“Performance art” accountability isn’t working
It’s easy to think that putting in the time is what matters at work. It’s why many managers focus on bringing employees back to the office, where they can “eyes-on see” if their teams are working hard.
Kara Lawson, Head Coach for Duke’s Women’s Basketball team, calls this out as people mistaking the activity of working hard with the behavior of competing (ie, celebrating effort vs focusing intently on value-creating outcomes). Unfortunately, many leaders encourage and reward “working-hard” activity-focused behaviors – and often mis-direct these rewards. Instead, we want to be looking for those who can actually make difficult choices among competing priorities, set boundaries, and deliver work efficiently (in less time) while achieving desired results.
We support the appearance of working hard when we over-detail status reports, settle for poorly-worded goals and targets, send too many status meeting invites, over-index on our contributions in Slack, or work late at our home-office desk. When we work this way without intention or focus on the value of the work itself; when we want to be seen by others; or when we engage to excess: we perform our work as a “Live-Action Role-Play” (Anne Helen Peterson, ‘LARP’ing your job’). A contributor who focuses on being seen by others, or nurtures “essential” or “go-to-expert” status, may actually add unnecessary work for your team – and not create enough real value for you, the team or your organization.
Admittedly, gaming the system with appearances of productivity is also changed in a hybrid environment; employees/ staff may seek different tactics to fully support the illusion of working hard when supervisors don’t have ways or capacity to watch.
For teams to be successful in this next era of changing work environments and patterns, leaders need a more conscious and effective approach to accountability. Here’s how it can work.
Making accountability true and transparent
Research of organizations experiencing exponential growth (ExOs) and results 10x greater than their peers, emphasizes qualities of autonomy, trust, and openness as key to their success. Using these qualities in pursuit of accountability requires leaders to shift focus to clear definitions of the outcomes we want to create (see video here).
Using the language of objectives and key results (“OKRs”) first developed by Andrew Grove at Intel, later expanded on by John Doerr in Measure What Matters, you can describe worthy high-value work as:
“I will [objective] as measured by [key result]”
An objective is a statement of intention, focus and direction over time. A key result is a tangible, objective business result. This focus ensures that what we agree to be accountable for IS based on value-creating; and ISN’T based only on work effort or activity. And this focus clarifies how we’ll measure our success at achieving the desired outcome.
Once leaders and teams have defined these objectives and results, you can take your team through a deeper exploration with each other to identify what’s needed to succeed. Doerr calls this part of the work Conversations, Feedback and Recognition (CFRs), which help us to explore our understanding of the work, and surface concerns in order to address or mitigate them before they create problems.
In many cases, leaders and teams will benefit from creating richer conversations where contributors not only list goals themselves, but discover and share what’s in it for each to achieve them. This means leaders don’t only announce goals to the organization, in a simple one-directional cascade (goals flow from the top down). It means that leaders create opportunities for all to contribute their own thinking, and engage in messy, productive (candid, strategic) dialogue with others. These conversations dive into the purpose of the work, the work itself, the value of it – and what doing the work and achieving the desired outcomes might mean for each person.
Team conversation questions could include:
- Regarding what we’re doing here: What matters to you?
- What’s the biggest challenge for you in this work?
- What will you need from others in order to achieve success? What do you need from me?
- How will you start?
- How will you know if you’re off track? What will you do if that happens?
These coaching-style questions invite open conversations within your team about the assumptions, purposes and collaboration underlying our work.
How we work together impacts our ability to succeed individually. And in a high-trust psychologically safe environment, these explorations bring to the surface the fears and challenges that people often avoid or attempt to bury beyond the attention of others when effort (and LARPing), rather than value/ outcomes, become the priority.
Creating conditions for true accountability
To create team environments for true accountability, we need to start by examining existing collaborative work processes. What is working well? What changes are needed if we are to continue operating in hybrid spaces? For example, leaders who post team targets and wins on their whiteboard, aren’t reaching those who don’t work on site.
Find new ways to make shared agreements visible within the team. Consider creating and sharing team/ partnership agreements or commitments that specify the desired outcome, describe what each contributor brings to the work, highlights the impact to each if they miss deadlines, and names each contributor’s needs in order to complete the work. Instead of focusing only on “due by,” set expectations regarding when team members will receive key inputs (and the quality of those inputs), how the team will monitor external factors, and how you’ll surface disagreements to resolve.
To document these newly-clarified “ways of working”, your teams can create personal “user manuals” detailing desired conditions to optimize participation and work output. (See this example from Atlassian). As a leader, supporting collaborative engagement with your team in these ways creates greater certainty for what’s needed. This is particularly true in hybrid spaces, when we are less able to rely on synchronous meetings and non-verbal or body language signals to communicate our needs.
From “one and done” to “living agreements”: lather, rinse, repeat
We talk about “forming, storming, norming and performing” in conversations about team dynamics. And we may hold the assumption that “once we achieve high levels of effectiveness, our team and our work will operate in an orderly way indefinitely”. But how we’re working is changing at a constant pace, with new priorities surfacing daily (sometimes more frequently than that). While Covid has forced many work adaptions, evolving challenges demand revisiting and renewal of our collaborative work practices.
Research from McKinsey notes that “adaptability is an evergreen skill.” As you develop written, shared agreements for work within your team, consider (and let people know) how you will update them on a regular, ongoing basis. This might be based on schedule-based refreshing (e.g., adding it as a scheduled, monthly review step) or when the team experiences certain “trigger events” within the work (e.g., if client requirements change or scheduled dates are missed).
Reviewing how well your shared agreements are serving the team along the way, as well as when you complete projects, will help team members assess what to do differently when working together in the future. By creating space for ongoing discussions, you’re ensuring that agreements are open, relevant and transparent – focused on supporting true accountability.
As leaders, it’s your role to help your team establish new practices to see and create real value and for true accountability – instead of only focusing on work effort. Creating collaborative conversational practices, explicitly exploring new ways to make collective agreements, and other effectiveness practices will help your team perform now – and grow, adapt, update and recommit with each new priority.
Is a spark missing in your collaborative work with others? Feel some concern about how you, your managers or teams in your organization are pursuing accountability? Set up a dialogue session to diagnose, explore options and frame next steps.