accountability conversationsThis is the sixth article in a series on 10 keys to high performing teams. You can see the original post here.

When organisations want to lift performance, often the first strategy that comes to mind is to set goals – perhaps coming up with one Big Hairy Audacious Goal or a set of Stretch Goals for individual teams. But a 2009 paper Goals Gone Wild by the Harvard Business School points out that the benefits of goal setting are exaggerated while the potential negative side effects are often ignored. In some cases, an over emphasis on goals can lead to lower performance. This happens for two main reasons: Firstly when extrinsic motivators are pushed, it means there is less intrinsic motivation. Secondly, it can emphasise the future at the expense of the present.

I won’t go into the process of how to set appropriate goals here – though that is certainly very important. Instead I want to emphasise the role of daily accountability conversations in shifting behaviour to raise productivity. A study by the Dominican University, California, showed that people who shared their goals with a friend and gave them weekly progress reports were twice as effective in meeting their targets compared with people who only set goals without holding themselves accountable to another person.

There are two reasons that daily accountability conversations are so powerful. Firstly most of us find it easier to be accountable to another person than to ourselves. Secondly, it takes attention off the imagined future and into the present.

From the moment we get up in the morning to the time we clean our teeth and get into bed, most of our behaviour is determined by habits. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shows how we can leverage habit to create powerful change. It starts by breaking down our future goals into the daily actions and habits that will get us there. This can then become the basis of a daily accountability conversation.


Being held accountable makes people feel vulnerable. If people don’t feel safe they are unlikely to enter fully into the accountability conversation. For this reason, I suggest the following ground rules:

  1. Accountability conversations should always be about supporting the person on their path to achieving their goals
  2. The conversations should never be about shaming or blaming
  3. The conversations should be informal and confidential, and never linked to formal appraisal systems
  4. The purpose of the conversations is to bring conscious awareness to the goals. It is not to help the other person solve their problems

The conversation

This does not have to be time consuming and ideally it is something that happens on a peer to peer level. My friend and colleague Ian Berry teaches people to have a conversation along these lines:

Question: Are you on track towards your goals?

Possible responses: Yes or No

Next question: (If “Yes”) Great! How does that make you feel? (linking the success to a positive feeling helps anchor it, making it more likely that it will be repeated).

If “No”) OK. What do you need to do to get back on track. (Note: this keeps the responsibility with the person being held accountable. It avoids the temptation to get into all the reasons why the person is off track, which can easily become a story of excuses leading to a victim mentality and avoidance of responsibility.)

Next question: Is there anything you need from me or other people to stay on track?

This last question acknowledges that sometimes people are reliant on others in order to achieve their goals, but it is important to only get to this question after the responsibility for reaching the goals has been firmly placed with the person who has the goals. Otherwise it can be all too tempting to get into a story of excuses about why other people and circumstances beyond your control are keeping you from success. While recognising that there may be significant obstacles to be overcome and people to be negotiated with, it is up to the person with the goals to overcome those obstacles and to negotiate with others as appropriate. Last but not least, it is their responsibility to ask for the help they need.

Subconscious saboteurs

In most cases, these daily conversations will help people stay on track. However in some cases there may be subconscious saboteurs at work, an additional conversation can be helpful to bring these to consciousness. This is a technique I have seen work well in groups based around The Mankind Project. The series of questions are along these lines:

  1. What was the agreement you made with yourself or someone else? (clarity around the goals)
  2. Did you keep that agreement?
  3. If not, what did you make more important?
  4. What were the consequences for yourself and for others?
  5. Have you done this kind of thing before? Where else in your life do you do this kind of thing? Is there a pattern here?
  6. What are the hidden benefits of this pattern?
  7. Do you have a sense of what might be driving this pattern in your life?

Here it is important not to get into working on the issues raised. That is not the role of work colleagues. More appropriate places to work on these issues are with a skilled business or life-coach, with a therapist, or in a therapeutic environment such as a Men’s group, Women’s group etc.

Culture is King

The issues around safety and trust bring us back again to the importance of creating the right culture at work. The success of these conversations depends on the extent to which people are prepared to be honest and vulnerable. In many, perhaps most, workplaces, people simply don’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable. For this reason, this key will not work on its own but only when some of the other keys to high performing teams are being applied. In particular, it needs to go hand in hand with a culture of appreciation and a culture that handles conflict well. But when people feel supported and that they are being held lovingly accountable to their goals, they can achieve extraordinary things, usually much more than they or anyone else thought possible.

Mike Lowe Helping individuals and teams get into flow

Keys to high performing teams part 6 – Daily accountability conversations

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