Stevie Toepke is Lead Consultant with The Frontier Academy, developing and delivering learning content for professionals who are seeking to increase employee engagement and evolve the culture in their companies.
My favorite email subject line this month was a simple one:
"I'm a Jerk."
Inside that email I found a voicenote from one of my colleagues, acknowledging behavior that was, well, less than constructive.
This kind of communication has become pretty normal among my teammates--and not because I work with a bunch of jerks. But because our people hold themselves accountable. They don't just want to get results; they want to get them in the right way.
The leaders I work with across companies large and small express a common yearning for that kind of environment. Why don't my people exhibit accountability? they ask. How can I persuade them to own their behavior--and motivate each other to do the same?
Standard top-down accountability practices--annual reviews, mid-year check-in's, skip-level meetings, etc--might ensure compliance, but their reach will always be limited. The capacity of leadership to observe and provide crucial feedback is finite. We need peers to hold one another accountable for doing great work, amplifying the results that one good leader might achieve. After all, teammates are more likely to have a better perspective on the day-to-day performance, and the strengths and opportunities of teammates, than a manager will.
The recent rush to implement 360-degree feedback shows the appetite for accountability cultures. And while technology-enabled peer feedback promises to provide insight into employees' performance, the recent (and very public) reports of abuse of these mechanisms have prompted many people to ask if those systems might do more harm than good.
I'd like to offer a different perspective. Peer feedback and accountability isn't a process. And it's not a technology. It's a skill. And if practiced often, it can become an organizational habit that will boost your team's cohesion, productivity, and performance.
I could point you to numerous recent examples from corporate clients, but instead, let's visit a different kind workplace: an addiction recovery center.
Imagine a normal Friday morning in the dining hall of The Healing Place, a residential treatment facility for homeless men struggling with substance abuse. Men stay here at no charge for as long as it takes to get sober. And they're gathering this morning for Community, a weekly meeting during which the men self-report. They admit struggles, failures, and challenges.
But it's not merely confession: they also give praise to their peers for positive actions and raise concerns about destructive behaviors they've witnessed.
"The worst thing anyone can do in Community," the program director says plainly at the outset, "is nothing at all." Refusing to participate conveys a lack of care. That simple reframing of accountability prompts the men to share their observations.
And that feedback is specific: only specific actions or words, not assumptions of intent. It is relevant: they can only share things from the past week, so no drudging up past grievances. It is urgent: the action is described, but so is the impact on individuals and the group. The shared interest is clear: only an intact community can support an individual's progress.
What the directors of The Healing Place know is that regular accountability practices like Community influence the small daily choices that ultimately determine success or failure in reaching the distant goal of sobriety.
Can that same level of accountability and peer feedback benefit the workplace? In every organization culture we've consulted with, and in our own company environment, we've found the answer is obvious: Yes. Small grievances don't fester. Effective practices are reinforced and scaled. Subpar work is called out and improved. And everyone's in it together.
The men at The Healing Place have figured out what corporate America hasn't: an accountability culture is essential for sustainable results.
And here's how you can put it into practice in whatever work community you're a part of:
- Own Your Fail. Take personal responsibility for your missteps, express contrition when you should, and make it right when you can. Admitting a mistake isn't a sign of weakness: it's a sign that you expect everyone to take ownership of their behavior as well.
- Reframe Feedback. "I have some feedback" has a chilling corollary: brace yourself. But what if feedback wasn't a weapon, but a tool? One that makes us better as individuals and a collective. Whether positive or constructive, feedback a demonstration of care.
- Set Ground Rules. Give guidance on the timeliness (no drudging from the past!) and specificity (avoid phrases like, "always," "never," "usually" etc.)
- Focus on the Observable. Provide feedback on demonstrable actions--behavior you see with your own eyes, words you hear with your own ears, or activity that can be measured. Avoid speculating on intention.
- Say Why. Speak to why the behavior matters. What ripples does it cause? How did the action impact an individual, the team or the business?
For a skill to become a habit, it has to be put into practice. So start with this challenge: encourage your team to seek out two types of feedback conversations in the next two weeks. One praises good behavior. One coaches destructive behavior.
Then hold each person accountable for those conversations by sending an email to you reporting completion.
Your team will find it's far easier than feared. And you'll find it produces better work--and a better workplace.