Accountability can have a soft touch

by | Apr 26, 2024 | Articles

5-6 min read


Accountability isn’t necessarily a top ten favorite word in organizations. We sometimes (often?) resent being held accountable, and we’re sometimes (often?) reluctant to hold others accountable. This isn’t the forum to speculate on reasons, but I do know it’s a word we often react to – and a discipline we often neglect.

Maybe (yes, I’ll speculate for a moment) it’s because we’ve experienced it in a heavy-handed form. Most of us probably have. (And some – many? – of us have likely been on the other non-receiving end of that unfortunate dynamic.)

And yet, accountability is vital, a crucial discipline of leadership and an essential aspect of stewardship. And it can be experienced in a healthy way – even, at times, with a soft hand.

Elements of accountability

Robert Gates (former US Secretary of Defense, Director of Central Intelligence, and President of Texas A&M University) has a helpful formulation for accountability: it’s the combination of clarifying expectations and monitoring performance.1 Clarifying expectations can be tricky, but I think much of the accountability discomfort and awkwardness comes from the monitoring of performance.

If we are under someone’s supervision, we are, by definition, accountable and should foster the clarifying and monitoring. If we have someone under our supervision, they are accountable to us and we should be diligent in the clarifying and monitoring.

And…we should calibrate the nature and frequency and specificity of both the clarifying and the monitoring based on an additional consideration: the level of trust in the relationship.

“Trust but verify”

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase when, in the midst of arms control negotiations with the USSR, he took this English form of the famous Russian phrase (“Doveryay, no proveryay”) and used it with Mikhail Gorbachev to make an important point: we must, to make this momentous agreement, trust each other – but I’m also prudent enough to know I still need to verify your compliance.

A corollary to President Reagan’s famous phrase

Linking the two concepts – trusting and verifying – is a useful reminder that the two are indeed inescapably related. Which brings me to what I’ll call a corollary to Regan’s comment: trust and the need for verification are inversely related.

It seems obvious, but we don’t always adjust our behavior to the obvious – or, in this instance, appropriately calibrate the monitoring and other accountability practices to the level of trust in the relationship.

Trust: the determining factor

Back to the diagram, and taken at the extreme: with zero trust, you require massive (near infinite?) verification (and will any verification ever actually be enough?). Conversely, when trust is strong, you can be more hands off.

So how do we identify the level of trust relevant for the situation? Stephen M.R. Covey’s brilliant book, The Speed of Trust, provides some helpful insights. Covey states that trust comes from a combination of character and competence, with character being a function of integrity and intent, and competence being a function of capabilities and results.2

In the workplace oversight relationship, hopefully you don’t have (or cause) material concerns on the character side of the trust reality: you are comfortable with the integrity and intent of the one reporting to you (and your supervisor is with yours as well).3 So competence provides most of the variability in the degree of trust that is present and of trust that can prudently be extended.

Practical example #1

A teller supervisor is training a new bank teller. Character (integrity and intent) are assumed (though likely still discussed…and monitored). But the bank teller is embarking on unfamiliar duties; job-specific competence is unclear or non-existent, and it will take some time for the new teller to develop capabilities and demonstrate results.

In this instance, trust is low-ish so verification must be high: both parts of accountability must be very active, with expectations clarified in detail and with monitoring of performance happening close up, near real-time, and with a very tight feedback loop. The stakes are too high (confidential data, customer relationships, bank reputation) for the teller supervisor not to practice very tight accountability.4

But as the teller gains experience and takes care of customers and learns from mistakes and generally demonstrates sustained competence (capabilities growing and resulting in tangible results), the teller supervisor can loosen the reins a bit, can lighten the firm-hand approach essential for the newbie.

Practical examples #2 & #3

Near the other extreme, trust is so high that little active verification is required.

This could be the case with a seasoned CFO with an extensive track record of and reputation for consistently delivering high-quality results (competence) accomplished with impeccable integrity (character). With an executive like this, the CEO likely only needs to check in periodically regarding unusual things or special projects and strategic initiatives. She can (based on reasonable evidence) trust the CFO to stay on track, to get things done, and to let her know if reality deviates from plans.

This could also be the case with the relationship between the Board of Directors and a CEO and her experienced management team. First: by the nature of the general, 30,000’ level governance and oversight responsibility of the Board, they shouldn’t be in the details much anyway. That’s what they hired the management team for. But a strong Board providing governance and oversight alongside a strong management team can, based on demonstrated character and competence, trust the team to move the company along its strategic path. The Board still has a responsibility to provide accountability, but the clarifying of expectations is usually periodic, high level, and determined in active consultation with management. And the monitoring of performance should generally be driven by management anyway, with regular reporting on financial and operational performance, and with periodic updates on strategic initiatives. The soft touch accountability here can be as simple as (a) asking good, probing questions; and (b) paying attention to the standard items on the agenda and the routine materials (financials etc.) provided by management for each meeting.5


When we get this right, when we calibrate the intensity of the accountability practices with the trust in the relationship, we can eliminate much of the awkwardness in the accountability dynamic. It may never be completely comfortable or second nature – either upstream or down. But deploying the level of monitoring (verification) appropriate for the level of demonstrated competence and character (trust) certainly helps. And that soft touch of accountability that’s present and real but not unnecessarily forceful can actually strengthen the trust in the relationship. They’ve demonstrated character and competence. Treat them like it.

Eric R. Alexander

April 2024


No A.I was employed (or harmed) in the creation of this content.

© 2024, Six Arrows Consulting. All rights reserved.

1  Robert M. Gates, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, 126 (Alfred A Knopf, 2016). Note that a 3rd and essential element is implied in these two, but worth making clear: once we’ve measured performance relative to expectations, we need to take appropriate action on the gap, if any, between the two. Possibly a “step up your game” conversation for performance that falls short; hopefully a “well done, good and faithful servant” discussion plus accompanying new responsibilities and higher expectations if the gap is from performance that exceeds expectations.

2  Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, 57-58 (Free Press, 2006, 2018).

3  In the arms control negotiations with the USSR, this was clearly the place where trust was weak. Very weak (and rightfully so, given history.)

4  But tight rein/up close accountability should never be abusive or even come close. Nothing, not even significant, impactful errors, ever excuses harsh, demeaning, or disrespectful feedback. Clear and bracing and unmistakable – for certain. But never abusive.

5  As an executive preparing regular reports for Boards, I came to realize that simply having the topic on the agenda and the report expected as part of the Board package created accountability for me: I certainly never wanted to show up at a Board meeting unfamiliar with the topic and unprepared for possible questions. Even if they didn’t come up.

Note: what I’m describing here is the dynamic appropriate in the absence of unusual circumstances. If management has violated trust, or if the management team is new and inexperienced, tighter accountability cycles will likely be appropriate. As in any case, calibrate to the trust level.