How an Upfront Agreement Promotes Mistakes AND Innovation

I often receive questions about accountability in the workplace. I figure if one person asks, several more are wondering the same thing. So I’ll be addressing some of these questions in this and future articles. If you have your own question about accountability, please contact me via the Accountability Experts website.

Question: “Alan, how can leaders hold employees accountable for their mistakes, but promote innovation at the same time (which requires failure to some extent)?”

Answer: Many people think that holding people accountable is all about catching people’s mistakes and coming down on them. Indeed, people often associate accountability with blame and guilt, if not downright criminal activity. “Who’s accountable? Fess up!” When what they’re really saying is, “Whose head should roll?”

No wonder accountability gets a bad reputation (almost as bad as meetings)! Who would want to be held accountable, if it might result in decapitation?

Accountability isn’t about nailing somebody to the wall for screwing up. Accountability is really about having clearly defined mutual expectations between you – the leader or managing partner – and the person you manage. What is this person going to do, when are they going to do it, and how are you going to follow up and make it happen?

That’s why having an upfront agreement with your people is such a key element of accountability, and probably why this tool has generated more buzz than anything else I offer my clients.

An upfront agreement is:

•  A pact established at the beginning of a relationship—or at the beginning of a new phase in a relationship;

•  An ongoing conversation about how people choose to work together; and

•  A mutual understanding about responsibilities, expectations and communication.

The upfront agreement prevents many of the problems that can occur in the workplace between leaders and their people. It alleviates doubts about who’s supposed to do what. It clarifies expectations. It enhances clear communication.

When you’re creating an upfront agreement with each of your team members, take time to explore, ask questions and investigate options about how the two of you will communicate, including what to do when they don’t know something.

Mistakes can often be traced to people not speaking up about something they didn’t understand. To save face, they continue on with the task and do it incorrectly, or they avoid the task because they know they’ll fail.

Unless you tell them differently, people will assume that it’s bad to not know something, and that mistakes will punished. That’s the experience many of us had growing up, and it sticks.

So spell it out from the start: it’s okay not to know. Or, as one of my clients put it, “It’s okay not to know—what’s not okay is if you don’t know and you don’t let me know.”

Do you see the potential power of having this kind of honesty and directness in your communication? Do you see the possibility for innovation and creativity when people are free to try, make mistakes, and admit that they don’t know something?

If you want to create a culture of innovation in your workplace, contact Alan M. Dobzinski about his meeting facilitation services.