Cultivate An Outward Mindset

Stop trying to hold people accountable. Instead, develop accountable people.

Holding people accountable isn’t some new idea. It’s a very old idea. And it’s time for this idea to head into retirement. Why? Because it isn’t a helpful idea. In fact, the idea of holding people accountable perpetuates, in a subtle and, therefore, insidious way, the very lack of personal accountability we are trying to solve in our never-ending attempts to hold people accountable.

The problem with this idea might best be illustrated using an experiment. In workshops with leaders, I often ask them to see if they can fill in the blank in the following statement: So-and-so is really good at his ____ , but he creates all sorts of problems for people in our organization.

What word came to mind to fill in that blank? If you heard this statement spoken in your workplace, what word would you expect to find there? Almost without exception, the word audiences instinctively shout out is, “job”: So-and-so is really good at his job, but he creates all sorts of problems for people in our organization. The general idea expressed in this statement is so commonplace it just seems to roll off the tongue. In short, we have come to accept the idea that people can be simultaneously good at their jobs and create problems for those they work with. That’s a problem!

Work to Help Others Succeed

How is it we have gotten to this point? Such a statement should be nonsensical, but it isn’t. The pervasiveness of the idea embedded in such a statement—that we are responsible for what we do but not responsible for its impact on others—is what makes holding others accountable so difficult in practice. We accept as fact that it’s OK for an individual to achieve her objectives— to do everything we’ve told her to do and more—even to be the most diligent and hardworking person in our organization, and yet make it harder for others to achieve their objectives. And given what this fill-in-the-blank experiment reveals about how most people think about the meaning of a job, you can imagine the resistance you’ll likely encounter when you try to “hold someone accountable” who is working hard and achieving her objectives.

What is needed, therefore, is not more “holding people accountable.” What is needed is a complete rethinking of what it means to have a job. In an organization, there is no individual objective that is not in service of another person’s or group’s objectives. Some of our tasks, activities, and objectives meet the needs of a manager. Others are in service of our customers or end-users. Still others might enable peer groups or internal customers or advance the ability of those we supervise to achieve their tasks and objectives more effectively. My job, when understood properly, is to do my work in a way that helps others be more successful as a result.

Reprogramming something as basic as one’s understanding of the meaning of a job isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort. People who understand that their job is to enable the success of everyone impacted by their efforts will work in a different way. They work with what we call an “outward mindset”: They are aware of and curious about the needs and objectives of others and are constantly adjusting what they do to be more helpful to others.

Leaders who help others shift to this outward mindset also discover that they no longer have to hold people accountable because they have created accountable people—people who understand that holding themselves accountable for the impact of their work on the success of others and the organization is as much a part of their job as accomplishing the tasks and objectives particular to their given role. So let’s stop trying to hold people accountable.

Instead, let’s start developing accountable people.D

Mitch Warner is a bestselling author and Arbinger managing partner with a background in health care and organizational turnaround. As an author of Arbinger's latest bestseller, “The Outward Mindset,” Warner writes and speaks frequently on the practical effects of mindset at the individual and organizational levels, as well as the role of leadership in transforming organizational culture and results. With training in philosophy, nursing administration, and fine arts, Warner spends much of his free time painting. His work hangs in organizations nationwide.

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