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Need Accountability? No Authority? No Problem

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

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January…. The month in which we focus upon accountability. It’s not as if we lose accountability to each other or ourselves in other months, but we tend to be hyper goal focused just now. This caused me to wonder, is there a magic bullet to creating accountability? In my experience, there are some keys to success but those keys may be different for each person. A parent or formal leader may find it easier to create accountability with if / then discussion and goals. But how do you create accountability with someone who is not required to follow your lead? I’ve found the following to be helpful.

Listen. Yes, it’s that simple but it doesn’t always feel that way. Listen with your entire being. Stephen Covey taught the art of seeking first to understand. To listen holistically takes practice. To be accountable, commit to practicing. Shut off the need to respond and instead, listen in order to be able to respond with what you heard in terms of all that you know and hear. Consider my exchange with a peer who consistently has no time to work on anything other than what they’ve got right in front of them yet wants to be involved in key decisions for a project. “Look I know I said, yet again, that I wanted to participate. But I just don’t have time until my team and I get through this work we’ve got in front of us. We’ve committed to three other people on three other deliverables and I just can’t focus there right now.” As I listen, I am thinking about what I know about this person. They are committed to their team and ensuring they do good work. They are focused on and care about the details. I observe that I am asking them to focus on a bigger vision and not yet diving into detail. They value meeting their commitments and they are good at what they do. As a result, they are often the go to person in their organization. So, I respond in kind. I tell them that what I’m hearing is that they believe understanding the vision for the project to provide input is important but to do that they need the ability to ask for and understand some more detail for success. In order to do that they need to shift focus for some time and just can’t right now. Note that I’m not letting them off the hook. I’m just letting them know that I hear them. We all need to feel heard and it helps open up the dialogue. In this case, the answer was yes, I got it right. If I hadn’t, they would have told me what I missed and I’d have another chance to respond with understanding.

Don’t solve the problem. That’s right! You don’t have to solve this problem! Everyone, and I mean everyone, has the answers needed to solve any problem. There are infinite ways and answers. To be accountable to helping another solve the problem commit to trusting, that in time, they will come up with an answer. This is a process to live by. If we really want to figure something out, asking an open-ended question allows our brains to engage to seek the answer. Even if not readily apparent, an answer will come in some way, shape or form and our brains will recognize it. Whether you’ve lost your keys or are looking for a resolution to a problem, ask a question. In this case the problem is not time to work on the project, but time to make space to take the first step. I just needed 20 minutes of time to align direct to the vision. So, I asked; how can we commit to 20 minutes where you can listen with intention and provide input? I can than go do some legwork and come back for the next step.

Allow for silence. People can’t wait to fill the void of silence after asking a question. It’s normal. We think we’re helping. But when we allow time for the answer, we create buy in. Sometimes the answer is I don’t know. When this happens, be accountable to ask another question and allow for the answer. My favorite question in response is this; “What if you did know?” If you could make up any answer, what would it be?”

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In my peer example, by asking the question and allowing time to think it through we decided just to talk it through then and there and move on. My peer didn’t have anymore time than they did before the conversation started, they just need to be heard and have the space to solve the problem.

Practice. Have you noticed? I’ve asked you to be accountable to this process. It’s up to us to be accountable to those we engage, to listen, allow for space to solve and not jump in to solve for them, no matter how tempting. In doing so we create the accountability for them to engage.

Think about some situations that you most often face in which you need someone to be accountable to a project you share. What are some open ended (who, what, when, where and how) questions you can ask? Note that if you ask a yes / no question you’re likely to get that answer. In opening the question up, you get further thought and buy in to the response. Give your self the space to ask the question given what you know about the person. What do they really care about? How would you feel in their place? How can you ask in a way that let’s them know you get that?

Next, think about a situation in which someone has a problem and you typically want to tell them the right answer - yours. How does it feel just before you jump in? Do you feel the need to interrupt? Do you feel anything in your body? Tension, butterflies? Pay to attention to those sensations. Your body will react first. If you can notice it, you can slow down. Consider creating a word or phrase to remind yourself and allow for listening, silence and time for the other to come up with solutions.

Learn More!

As a project, program and process improvement leader with 25+ years in the corporate world, I know that it’s truly those that informally lead who help drive the revenue, satisfy the customers, and create the opportunities for business to succeed.

It’s why I created Origin Coaching. To help those in informal leadership roles, like project and program managers, to create success because they are able to lead others, up, out and through to intersect purpose with path. Coaching is often available to the executive leadership team to drive results; my passion is to help their teams drive those same results by provoking purpose.

Are you interested in understanding the impact that individual or group coaching could have on you and/or your organization? Check out my website at

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