Accountability and Respect

20 April 2011

Leadership expert Libby Wagner discusses the importance of balancing accountability and respect.

The most effective delivery of an honest message in business balances both accountability and respect, especially if the target of our honesty is someone whom we'd like to influence to change, or encourage followership, or especially if what we're trying to do is to create long-term commitment rather than short-term compliance. Though it's all too easy for leaders to have too much of one or the other, it does matter how the message is delivered. Knowing the difference between respectful honesty and disrespectful honesty, and how to balance both accountability and respect is critical for influencing those around us. 

Cost of disrespectful honesty: being brutally honest

Let's examine the costs of disrespectful honesty. Some decision-makers like to take pride in the fact that they will tell you the truth. "I'll be brutally honest with you," is a common phrase we might hear from a CEO or SVP. But how about just being honest and leaving out the "brutal" part? Instead, this phrase is really just a preview to let you know that they are going to tell you the truth but they don't care at all if it hurts your feelings, devalues you, or damages the relationship. Since they told you up front they were going to be brutal, however, it's okay, right? Rubbish!

Say you have someone on your team who is simply not performing. This lack of performance and lack of sharing the work of projects is beginning to impact all the things important to your team-deadlines, success, customer service, team cohesiveness. You need to influence her to change-and right now! So you need to be candid, and the language you choose will impact not only the short-term result but also, even more importantly, the long-term outcome of your team.

"Eventually, you lose respect for this person because there is this imbalance between accountability and respect."

Do you tell her she's lazy, ineffective and selfish, that she expects her team members to carry her load while she's taking extended lunches with her girlfriend in the next office? Do you shame her into feeling guilty that you've been working long hours to pick up the slack for her lack of action? You can say all these things and they might very well feel true to you about the situation, but chances are you'll create a defensive person whose trust in you is diminished and who now moves into the likelihood of short-term compliance, if she moves at all. This is an imbalance of accountability and respect.

Too heavy: accountability

Consider this imbalance: When someone is really heavy on the demonstration of accountability, they hold you to deadlines and specific details, direct and follow-up on your work, monitor your progress. But they're also light on demonstrating respect to you: they don't answer questions, nor listen to concerns, nor value your ideas or input, nor speak to you with courtesy. What's the result? You feel micromanaged, undervalued, perhaps even abused. You are most likely just going to do the minimum and feel resentful about it too because your leader is not showing any respect to you.

Can you have too much respect?

On the other hand, what if the opposite occurs? A leader whose behaviour consistently demonstrates respect - listening to concerns, answering questions, offering explanations, caring about you as a person, asking for your input or feedback - but who doesn't hold you accountable? This creates an equally undesirable result - nothing gets done! Eventually, you lose respect for this person because there is this imbalance between accountability and respect. It's not that complicated of course since most people just want to do a good job and feel like their work means something. Most people actually want to be both respected and held accountable.

"This is an imbalance of accountability and respect."

If you are willing to be honest and specific about your expectations, yet firm and respectful in your delivery, your chances of increasing trust and increasing commitment are greater.

If you are able to address someone on your team, one-on-one, with respect, and ask for exactly what you want - her demonstrated commitment to the team by meeting deadlines, finishing projects and helping co-workers etc.-you are then being respectfully honest. And, importantly, you both now have a chance of winning - it's not a zero sum game.

The bonus is that when we are willing to develop our balance of accountability and respect, because then we earn the trust and respect of those who follow us. They know you will hold them accountable and they know you will do so respectfully. Hard to argue with that! The business leader who knows how to have such a conversation-or confrontation-balancing accountability and respect on the fulcrum of honesty effectively is a rare leader indeed, one whose effectiveness to influence followers is greatly increased.

Libby Wagner, Libby Wagner & Associates, is perhaps America's only poet regularly welcomed into the boardroom. Author of the new book The Influencing Option: The Art of Building a Profit Culture in Business (Global Professional Publishing), she has been labeled 'The Influencing Coach' by her clients.