How do you hold people accountable to repeatably deliver business results? Every sales and marketing team I’ve led is characterized by camaraderie, energy, and results. They are highly accountable to each other, to me, and to the business. They take risks and implement innovative ideas, resulting in significant success over time. Many colleagues have asked how to create a comparable culture within their own teams. Business articles, books and courses emphasize the importance of the mantra of accountability, but how does one practically accomplish this goal?

It sounds simple: embrace objective metrics. “We’ve set a target for 100 new opportunities this quarter. You had $100,000 in the budget to spend. It’s the end of the quarter and we only have 60 new qualified opportunities. You did not deliver on your results.” This factual analysis with incontrovertible proof misses the point. Once you have your metrics, how do you maximize your team’s results? Do you respond to failure by penalizing the team or individual? Do you embarrass, cajole, salute, or shame them? What method will unlock the ideas and energy that will win you 120 new opportunities next quarter? Creativity and innovation are crucial to success and inherently risky. Accountability must also provide psychological safety to generate sustained results.

Adam Grant, Tom Geraghty, and Amy C. Edmondson each detailed extensive research extolling the benefits of psychological safety at work. Adam and Amy’s definition: “Psychological safety is not relaxing your standards, feeling comfortable, being nice and agreeable, or giving unconditional praise. Psychological safety is a culture of respect, trust, and openness where it’s not risky to raise ideas and concerns.”

In a psychologically safe environment, people are able to try something new and fail on their way to learning. Without psychological safety, people won’t take risks. There’s extensive evidence of the superior and sustained performance of organizations that fundamentally value learning and adapting (e.g. 3M, Google) versus organizations that didn’t (Blackberry and Polaroid). Listen to Adam Grant’s Ted Talk “Is it Safe to Speak up at Work”, to learn from case studies of Boeing and NASA where speaking up can mean literal life or death.

The balancing act of management

Managers face a balancing act – they need to create a culture of accountability while creating authentic psychological safety. The key lever: time.

Incorporating Time

Using time strategically in the accountability practice

The results-versus-safety balancing act requires incorporating time into the equation. While results are the long-term focus, optimal timelines for feedback and results may not always be obvious. I have found a year to be the right temporal length for most B2B businesses to achieve results and set new goals (although Boeing and NASA timelines are much longer while Amazon’s timeline might be much shorter – the proper length depends on the speed of your sales cycle). Setting a proper interval enables shareholders to expect results accurately while your team still feels like they can engage in learning that will ultimately achieve everyone’s goals.

Quarterly intervals are good to make adjustments

Quarterly (interim) team results are an indication of direction and momentum. They provide an opportunity to coach your team members to adjust in order to achieve the long term goal.

Balance Accountability Toward Learning Rather than Results

Accountability with psychological safety

To achieve your long-term goal, break it into intervals (e.g. quarters) during which team members must be accountable for:

  • making and fulfilling commitments,
  • understanding the impact of their work, and
  • analyzing and recommending changes to improve outcomes.

If a team member consistently doesn’t deliver on their commitments, they need coaching, redeployment or removal. If a team member can, however, articulate their hypotheses, evidence, and learning, they will eventually deliver superior results, both individually and through their impact on the team.

The Key Conclusion: Separate Learning from Outcome

Holding people accountable solely for attaining interim outcomes creates a culture of fear that inhibits ambition (under-promise and over-deliver), reduces intelligent risk taking and undermines psychological safety.

Holding your team  accountable for learning from interim outcomes creates a culture of trust that promotes ambition, risk taking, openness, psychological safety and team camaraderie.

Considers errors as crucial on the path to success

The route to long-term results is peppered with mistakes and adjustments. To achieve results over the very long term, require your team to reach its year-long goals but use its interim results for continual re-adjustment and learning.