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Balancing Accountability and Empathy

Published 10/23/2019

Accountability provides an observable access to the things you're committing to following through on. Whatever your commitment is, having accountability means someone else has some visibility into what you're doing and what you said you would do.

In today's episode, we're talking about effective accountability and accomplishing the things we set out to do and identifying the gaps that cause us to miss the things we set out to do.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Some research has shown that accountability can have a profound impact on your ability to follow through with a commitment. What exactly does it mean to have accountability? And how can we build cultures that support accountability while also retaining empathy? My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. What exactly does it mean to have accountability? Well, at the most basic level, accountability is about letting another person know whatever your commitment is, whatever the measurement is, measurement is an important word in that, that you want to stay accountable to. It provides some kind of observable access to the thing that you committed to and whether or not you're following through on that commitment. In the context of a company culture, you might make a commitment to a timeline or maybe a set of particular behaviors. Maybe you are committed to providing more feedback on some code from your peers. Whatever your commitment is, at the most basic level, having accountability means someone else, either on your team or your manager or maybe somebody entirely off of your team, has some visibility into what you're doing and what you said you would do. That effective accountability goes beyond just observability and visibility into those measurements. Effective accountability includes some kind of reckoning event. And when we say reckoning, it sounds scary and often, unfortunately, accountability ends up feeling scary too. Because when we are held accountable, it's very clear what the gap is between what we did and what we said we would do. And this is one of the reasons it can be quite effective. When we can clearly see the gap between what we said we would do and what we actually did, we have some more questions to answer. What exactly caused us to have that gap? This can be scary because people don't like to not follow through with commitments just at a psychological level, but we also can add to that fear in a work environment by hinting a promotion off of whether or not you met the things that you said you were going to meet, the things you committed to. So how can we create effective accountability systems? We've already talked about some of it. One is the observability aspect. The second is the reckoning moment or that meeting where you talk with that person who's holding you accountable and you talk about, you know, you kind of have a postmortem of where you are so far on that measurement of accountability. But there's more to it than that. How can we create accountable cultures that are also supporting people and our beacons of empathy for the people who are members of those cultures? That's what we're going to talk about right after we talk about today's sponsor, Vetterie. Vetterie is an online hiring marketplace that is changing the way people hire and get hired. Access to Vetterie is exclusive and once you're live on the marketplace, top employers can view your profile and extend interview requests via email. Vetterie specializes specifically in the tech space. That means software engineers, data scientists, product managers, et cetera. You can set preferences for your desired location, your personal top skills, your years of experience, professional background, and even salary requirements so that you'll receive interview requests only for roles that match exactly what you're looking for. Vetterie partners with over 20,000 companies from innovative startups to Fortune 500 firms across the United States, Canada, and the UK. On top of all this, Vetterie is free to join. You can sign up on Vetterie.com slash Developer Tea. Using that link will get a $300 bonus if you end up accepting a job through Vetterie. Using that link also supports Developer Tea. That's Vetterie.com slash Developer Tea. Thanks again to Vetterie for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So how do we create systems of accountability that maintain empathy in a given culture? This isn't easy to do because at a fundamental level, accountability is often about finding flaws. But this is one place where we can improve the effectiveness of accountability by investing in systems that not only look for flaws but also celebrate strengths. So when you meet with your whatever accountability partner, if you want to call them that with your manager, with a coworker, whoever you are holding accountable or whoever is holding you accountable, part of the process should be explicitly looking at the places where you have succeeded. This can be a little bit difficult to do because again, our concept of accountability is to look at the gap between where we are and where we want it to be and if we have sufficiently closed that gap, then we kind of ignore those successes. But it's important to focus on those successes because focusing on strengths encourages positive feedback. Many studies show that positive feedback is as effective if not more effective than negative feedback. Additionally, as we create systems of accountability, we have to remember that the person is not represented by the metric. What does this mean? Well, it means that when you look at the things that you are measuring, as a part of your accountability process, you need to recognize that there could be a lot of various ways that that measurement won't add up. A lot of our assumptions about what causes a gap in that measurement between what was committed to and what was actually executed, a lot of those causes that we intuitively assume are wrong. For example, it's easy to assume that someone who didn't meet a deadline didn't work hard enough or they were distracted. These are intuitive understandings. What's reality is almost always more complex. We should treat these meetings not as a moment to focus on whether or not that person was being lazy or if they were distracted, but instead focus on learning. The heuristic you want to pay attention to here is shame. If at any moment you as the person who is being held accountable or the person you are holding accountable feels shame for the gap between where they committed and where they are, then it's important to recognize that shame is not going to provide a productive relationship into the future. It only creates a negative power dynamic. Instead we want to focus on ways to close the gap. We have to avoid the toxic byproduct of shame. When holding someone accountable, always look for the opportunities rather than the judgements. Think about that for a moment. If you are a manager and you're holding someone accountable to a particular standard of quality, it's important to recognize that the new work they do is high quality is an opportunity. Rather than focusing on the previous behavior and trying to find some punitive angle on that behavior, instead focus on the opportunity that is presented for the future. How can we seize that opportunity in the most effective way? That should be the goal of your conversations around accountability. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I encourage you to subscribe and whatever podcasting app you currently use if you thought today's episode was valuable to you. Today's episode was sponsored by Vetterie. You can get a $300 bonus if you end up accepting a job through Vetterie by signing up through Vetterie.com slash Developer Tea. Once again, that link helps support the show as well. A huge thank you as always to spec.fm and our wonderful producer Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.