Leading With Level One Accountability

There are four levels of accountability in any organization, and within the departments of that organization. And while each department and the organization itself is normally a blend of all four levels that depend on the time of the month, the leader of that department, and other factors, there is one level that will dominate. As I share the four levels, evaluate which most dominates the area you spend most of your time, and what steps can be taken to improve accountability there. Whichever level dominates will tell a lot about the leader, culture, and team members in each department; and, if you want to improve performance, you’ll need to improve the level of accountability therein.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. In high-performing cultures, accountability is everyone’s job. This is because a lack of accountability from one person may affect the performance, the employee experience, and the customer experience throughout the organization.
  1. Accountability isn’t about punishment; although it may eventually require consequences. The real and true objective of accountability is to improve performance. Because of this, holding others accountable means you care enough about people and the team overall to swiftly and firmly address issues that affect the team’s performance, and the individual’s future.

The Four Levels of Accountability

  1. Level Four: No accountability.

At this level, there is no accountability — no meaningful consequence for poor behaviors or performance. The more often level four persists, the weaker the culture, morale, momentum, the brand, and results overall become.

Example: someone comes to work late, violates a core value, fails to follow a process, misses a deadline, fails to keep a commitment and the like, and nothing happens.

Without question, the more present level four accountability is within a department, the weaker the culture will be and the more morale will suffer. The greater results will be more erratic, and the more the leader’s credibility will be seriously impaired.   

  1. Level Three: Top-down accountability.

Top-down accountability is when a supervisor addresses poor performance or behavior. It is necessary, it’s a positive thing, and it is the leader’s job, but it is Level Three because there are two levels better than this. While it’s a significant step up from Level Four, it is not what you find dominating the highest performing cultures in business or athletics.

With Level Three accountability it is always the manager who addresses performance issues. For instance, a technician comes in late, and his or her manager will address it. Again, while this certainly is necessary, it’s not optimal as the boss can’t be everywhere and see everything. Thus, many poor performances may be un-checked as a result of reliance on Level Three accountability. 

  1. Level Two: Peer-to-peer accountability.

Peer-to-peer accountability is when equals within the same team hold one another accountable. It’s far more effective in improving performance and is a key indicator of high performing cultures. For instance, when a technician comes in late, the boss doesn’t have to address it because the other technicians will handle it in their own manner: “Come on man, you’ve got to get here on time. We’ve got a goal to hit and we all need to step up to do it.” A conversation like that from a peer, or peers, will have a far greater impact on influencing performance than Level Three accountability. While no one wants to let the boss down, there’s a lot more positive peer pressure not to let teammates down.

Note that in the example I gave, a peer confronting another can be done good-naturedly, respectfully, and conversationally. It doesn’t have to be done, and shouldn’t be done with disrespect as that creates a distraction that actually hurts performance. 

  1. Level One: Self-accountability.

Self-accountability means no one has to hold an individual accountable because that person does their job, follows the process, lives the values, and does so consistently. And he or she doesn’t do these things because they’re bribed, begged, or threatened; rather, they do so because that is who they are as human beings, and they have a higher standard for themselves than anyone else could ever have for them. We all have had people on our teams over the years that required very little or no accountability at all. Level One is where the best teams live. While Level Two is really strong, Level One is the summit. Some team members are Level One simply because that is how they are wired, and it reflects the high standards they have for their own life. Other teammates are at Level One because the positive pressure created at Levels Three and Two incentivized them to “up” their performance.

As odd as it may seem, whichever level is currently dominating your department or organization, has a ton to do with how you’re hiring. It really does start there. If you’re hiring people without high personal standards who don’t care about others, and are content to just have a “job” and do just enough to get by, you’re going to spend a lot of time at the lower levels. But even after you do hire well it’s no guarantee that you’ll have the optimal levels of accountability. The leader of that department still must: create clear expectations; train others to hit those expectations; give others consistent feedback on their success or failure concerning said expectations; consistently hold people accountable for executing those expectations; and model the personal excellence that frees him or her to hold others accountable without being seen as a hypocrite. As always, the culture rests heavily on the leader, and the ensuing results become his or her report card.

Here are a couple of parting thoughts to move forward with this information: 

  1. Which level best describes where you stand in your organization from day to day, not just at the end of the month or when your back is against the wall? Which level dominates in times of prosperity?
  2. Do you have people on your team who care enough to confront peers concerning their performance? If not, why; and, how can you change that.
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Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson, “Mr. Accountability,” is a leading international speaker on personal and corporate performance improvement. The author of 14 books and host of the wildly popular podcast, The Game Changer Life, Dave’s message has impacted leaders in nearly 70 nations. His “in-the-trenches” background of starting and running world-class businesses, coupled with his relatable non-academic approach, creates an unmatched connection that resonates with audiences and moves them to action. Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveAnderson100