The Three Habits of Building Accountable Relationships

Human beings are social animals.  Aristotle observed this fact over two thousand years ago, and it’s never been more evident in today’s connected world.  The central lesson of our species’ rise to the top of the food chain, our ultimate advantage, is our ability to work together. And that’s why we build relationships.  We’ve learned that we can achieve more when we create partnerships—more safety, additional resources, greater accomplishments, and positive emotions.

So, if working with others is our ultimate advantage in life, how much thought do we put in to making sure those relationships are effective and sustainable?  When money is involved, such as a business deal, the parties tend to put some thought into how that relationship should work.  But when it comes to establishing other important relationships, most people put in far less effort to make sure those relationships work well.

Accountable Relationships Create Mechanical Advantage

Accountability is about achieving desired results more frequently.  Accountable relationships are those that produce the intended results of the relationship, and consistently improve over time.

If our ability to work with others is humanity’s greatest advantage, then building accountable relationships further leverages this advantage.

My wife and I once visited the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park where we explored the historical ships on display.  On one of the ships was an exhibit that demonstrated the mechanical advantage achieved by a block and tackle pulley system of one, two, three, and four pullies.  Although I understood the theory of mechanical advantage, when I actually tried the different block and tackle systems, it was like I discovered magic.  Same load, but the four-pulley block and tackle system was shockingly easier than the one-pulley system.

The more I’ve learned about accountability, the more I’ve noticed that most of us are using a one-pulley system with most of our relationships.  Relationships take a lot of effort to achieve the results we want to achieve.  But there are a few powerful habits that, when practiced, make relationships far easier and more beneficial to all parties.  Like a four-pulley block and tackle system, accountable relationships take a little more thought to create, but relationships become far easier when these three habits are applied.

Three Habits of Building Accountable Relationships

In my quest to discover how to create a culture of accountability to help individuals and organizations achieve the right results more often, I’ve uncovered what I believe are the three most powerful habits people can develop to improve their relationships with others.


     Set Agreed-Upon Expectations

John Lennon was wrong… love is not all you need to create a lasting relationship.  Love might bring two people together, but it is not enough to keep them together.  A strong and lasting marriage, for example, is built on shared values, mutual respect, and a commitment to try to meet each other’s needs.

Those are also the essential ingredients to any healthy relationship.

Agreeing upon expectations of each other is a critical step to ensure these essential ingredients remain operative within relationships.  Setting expectations clarifies shared values and how we plan to act on those values.  It provides instructions on how to strengthen mutual respect.  And it focuses efforts on meeting each other’s most important needs.

Look at any failed relationship and you will find unmet expectations.  Look closer and you will discover that many of those unmet expectations were never clearly articulated or agreed upon.

Shari Harley, best-selling author of How to Say Anything to Anyone, advocates setting expectations at the beginning of every important relationship.  Doing so, she says “makes it easier to address frustrating behaviors when they happen. And they will happen.”

Consider this scenario.  A member of my project team continually shows up late to meetings.  If I address it with him, he may think “Gee, Michael’s being so picky.  He must have it out for me.”  However, if one of the expectations we agreed to at the beginning of the project was to be on time for meetings, then I’d feel more comfortable addressing it with him, and when I do, I’d be more likely to get a response like “Ya, I guess you’re right.  I’ll try to be on time more often.”

As Roger Connors and Tom Smith noted in their book How Did That Happen, “you cannot effectively hold someone accountable if you have not first formed clear expectations.”

When I began a new working relationship with my work colleague, Carrie, I essentially said “I want to have a great relationship with you, and I want to make sure I’m giving you what you need to love your job.  Let’s clarify for each other what you need from me to be successful and what I need from you to be successful.”  This is what we agreed to.

Click HERE for a list of topics you may want to consider addressing with your important work relationships.

On a regular basis, Carrie and I ask each other how well we are doing in meeting these expectations.  We also review these expectations every 6 months or so to make sure they are still relevant.

The key to establishing and maintaining accountable relationships is setting mutually agreed-upon expectations and inviting feedback on how well you are meeting those expectations.

Following this process makes addressing frustrating behavior far easier—for both parties.  When we receive feedback that we could do better, we make adjustments and then ask later if those adjustments did the trick.

It’s a pretty simple process, and it works.


     Request Feedback

Imagine if after returning home from a party you looked in the mirror to discover a conspicuous piece of spinach in your teeth.  “Why didn’t anyone at the party tell me?” you wonder.

Probably because a) they were afraid that giving you this embarrassing feedback would be awkward for them, and b) you never asked them if you had anything in your teeth.

Having spinach in your teeth is like doing something that hurts your performance and/or the team’s results.  And here’s the important thing to remember: we all have spinach in our teeth!  We just don’t know about it because a) other people feel awkward pointing it out, and b) we never ask them to.

Relationships deteriorate fast when someone doesn’t feel they can be frank with you.  When you are doing something that bothers them, and they don’t feel they can tell you, passive-aggressive behavior is almost sure to follow.

Passive-aggressive behavior is the antitheses of accountable behavior.  When employees don’t feel they can be frank with someone, they lose respect for them, which is the death knell of relationships.  Instead of helping their teammates, they begin to sabotage them by withholding information, gossiping, making sarcastic remarks at their expense, becoming uncooperative, blaming, and engaging in email wars.

When you ask for feedback, you eliminate the need for people to use passive aggressive behavior to get their message across to you.  Why try to be sneaky and manipulative about getting your message across when someone is asking you point blank for your opinion about them?

During an accountability workshop, I often ask participants this question in an anonymous survey: Do you see someone in this room ever do things that either make them look bad, hurts their performance, or hurts the team’s results?

The response is usually close to unanimously affirmative.

Here’s the next question I ask: Would you like to know if you were doing something that made you look bad, was hurting your performance, or hurting team results?

Most people say that they would.  And if you don’t want to know, there’s a name for that: “Jackass.”

We are all wandering around a party with spinach in our teeth.  Wouldn’t you like someone to let you know?  Then just ask.

Here’s how.

Ask each of your key relationships this question:

“I know I’m doing things, or not doing things, that are hurting my performance and the team’s performance.  But I don’t always see what those things are.  What is one thing you see I could do to improve?”

Asking for feedback is that simple.

Pro Tip 1: It’s probably best to give people a heads up that you will be asking them that question to give them time to think about their response.

Pro Tip 2: To help make the feedback more constructive, ask for advice, not what you’re doing wrong.  You’re not asking them to beat you up for past transgressions, you’re asking them to help you improve your future performance.

Remember, we all have spinach in our teeth that others can clearly see.  So if they say “There’s nothing I see that you could do to improve,” they either don’t want to hurt your feelings or they aren’t thinking very hard.  In that case, you’ll need to probe by asking point blank questions such as:

  • How can I improve the meetings I chair?
  • How could I improve the way I communicate?
  • What is one negative perception about my behavior you think some people may have?
  • Do I micromanage?
  • Do I try to appear that I know all the answers?
  • Do I blame?

When they know that you really want feedback, and you make it easy for them to provide it, people will help you see how you can improve.  They will no longer feel the need to engage in passive-aggressive behavior to get their message across.

And by the way, when you actually receive their feedback, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, there is only one correct response: “Thank you.”  People who shoot the messenger stop getting messages.

Asking others for feedback is the best tonic for the ultimate relationship killer: low respect.

Think about it.

When people ask us for our feedback about their performance, or about how well they are meeting our expectations of them, something interesting happens.  Almost instantly, our opinion of them improves.  That simple act of asking for feedback is like injecting us with a dose of respect for them.  It demonstrates vulnerability and trust and encourages reciprocity—the desire to be kind in return.  Any anger or resentment we may have for that individual dissipates.  Instead of seizing on this opportunity to vent our frustrations, our motivation to provide feedback moves in the direction of the desire to be helpful instead of hurtful.


     Provide Feedback & Discuss

Asking others for feedback is a prerequisite for providing feedback to them.  We can’t expect others to be receptive to our feedback to them unless we have demonstrated that we are receptive to their feedback to us.  Asking for feedback earns us the right to provide feedback.

But what if others don’t ask us for feedback?  How can we share our feedback in a constructive way without resorting to passive-aggressive behaviour that destroys accountability?

After reading a truckload of articles, studies and books about feedback, I have come across a lot of theories and advice.  The popular thinking in the 90’s was to use “I” statements and tell people how their behavior makes us feel.  If you’ve tried that, then you know that this technique feels awkward and often devolves into a directionless, unproductive sob session.

More recently, a popular business author suggested that since almost nobody provides feedback well, and even fewer receive feedback well, we shouldn’t give others feedback at all.  This author contends that, instead, it’s best to ask people what they think they can do better.  Although this advice may be pleasing to the ears of non-confrontational people, no matter how much you ask me what I think I could do better, it’s hard for me to see my own blind spots without some help.

The best method, by far, for providing effective feedback is detailed in the best-selling book, Crucial Conversations.  It is as simple as it is effective.  With virtually no practice or rehearsal, I have used this method successfully in difficult conversations with family members, employees, a cranky construction superintendent in charge of building my house, and many others.  It is a non-threatening way of pointing out something you see someone doing that you don’t like, and resolving the issue.

Here is a simplified version of this method:

Step 1 – Share Your Observation

State what you are seeing.  You might say something like “I’ve noticed a pattern developing. Several times now, when this happens, it appears to me like you tend to do this, which often ends up with this result.”

A clearly stated observation includes the a) context, b) specific behaviour, and c) the results/impact of the behaviour.

No judgement.  No accusations.  Just your view of the facts.

Step 2 – Ask For Clarification

After stating what you are observing, you ask them for their perspective to get all the facts on the table.

You might say something like “Have you noticed this pattern too, or am I missing something?”

Most of us don’t have all the facts about situations in which someone else is the primary actor.  When you ask for clarification, you acknowledge your limited perspective and you are asking them to fill in any blanks in your perspective.  You are taking a position of fact-finder, not accuser.

Step 3 – Focus On Improving The Future

Occasionally, that may be all they need to see the error of their ways, and that may be the end of it. “Oh, I didn’t notice that.  Sorry, I’ll try not to do that again.” they may say.

More often, however, the person receiving the feedback is going to share some details with you that you hadn’t considered, details that reveal their perspective and shed some light on why they did what they did.  This creates the opportunity for dialogue to resolve the issue.

“Thanks for clarifying” you may say.  “I see there is more to the situation than it appeared.”

Once both perspectives are on the table, you can problem solve until you have a solution. As discussed in The Three Steps to Develop Personal Accountability, it’s important to acknowledge your part in the problem.  You may ask “What can you and I do differently to prevent (the less than ideal results/impact) from happening in the future?”


The key to this approach is that is shows respect.  It shows respect by recognizing that you only have one perspective, not necessarily the correct perspective; and acknowledges that they, too, may have a valuable perspective on the problem.

Feedback goes wrong when people prepare a monologue and think that providing feedback is simply the act of delivering the monologue.  Effective feedback is respectful, fact-based, solution focused, and most importantly, a two-way dialogue.

Feedback goes wrong when people prepare a monologue and think that providing feedback is simply the act of delivering the monologue.

Accountable Relationships Precede a Culture of Accountability

Relationships don’t have to be as difficult as we often make them.  Building accountable relationships is like building a block and tackle system to make our relationships far easier.

By setting mutually agreed upon expectations, we set the foundation for effective communication.  When others fail to meet our expectations of them, they will expect us to let them know, instead of feeling surprised and attacked when we bring up our observations.  Others will have greater respect for us because we ask them for feedback regularly.  And they know we respect them when we ask for their perspective when providing them with feedback.

A culture of accountability is an inter-locking web of accountable relationships, each working to meet each other’s needs and fulfill the organization’s purpose.

For help creating a culture of accountability in your organization, see the Creating Accountability Workshop Series.

4 Responses

  1. i missed this when I was junior manager, but its fantastic, this are the basics we miss in constructive leadership. Its great

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