Corporate Accountability, Vulnerability & Trust

Corporate accountability is like oxygen for  agility and innovation. When it comes to achieving accountability with feedback, we often overlook key ingredients such as psychological safety and openness. These can be achieved with vulnerable leadership.

Key Ingredients of Corporate Accountability

A few weeks ago, a friend and I had an interesting conversation about feedback and accountability over coffee. The following day, he sent an email asking:

Do you really need a “psychologically safe” environment for accountability to work?  What about “openness”?

The simple answer to his questions is yes, and yes. But I spent four years and two graduate degrees obsessed with learning if and how psychological safety, trust and inclusiveness impact the capacity for organizations to change, so of course I have a more complicated answer.

Ready to try a new path to accountability? Give me a shout!

It’s hard to explain this concisely. As an example, trust is a multi-dimensional construct that can hold different meanings for different people. That’s wordy right? Don’t worry, I’ll take off my academic hat off for the rest of the article.

Perhaps the easiest way to say it is: The safer people feel the more open they will be. It’s not possible to get one without the other. Further, the safer people feel, and the more open they are, the more likely they will be to lean into conversations that make a meaningful difference — personally, professionally, and organizationally. Those differences can lead to a workforce with better morale, better leadership, and more innovation within the workplace itself.

How to Build Psychological Safety at Work

So how do you create psychological safety and openness? Well, let’s start at the beginning. Psychological safety requires a willingness to be vulnerable and trust.

  • Vulnerability: Openness to being exposed to potential harm.
  • Trust: Feeling that it be okay if or when something goes wrong.

Accountability and feedback involve a lot of risk. Risk implies potential harm — to me, to my career, to my financial and social standing etc. The bigger the risk the more vulnerability and trust we need

Vulnerability is key to taking the risks accountability requires. If I am not willing to be vulnerable, I will not take risk. In many cases, no matter how big the reward might be, I still won’t take the risk if I’m not willing to experience the vulnerability — exposure to harm — that comes with it.

The more I trust you, the less I will worry about being vulnerable, the more willing I am to take the risk.

What Leadership Can Do for Corporate Accountability

Sometimes in leadership development programs, I will ask, “What does it mean to lead?”

People answer with different things — authenticity, purpose, vision, goals, etc. But these are things leaders do. My question isn’t “What do leaders do?” My question is, “What does it mean to lead.”

Eventually someone will say, “It means to be first.” And I will say, “Bingo!” Leading means someone must go first, especially when they aren’t certain things will go their way. Otherwise, it would be a class about waiting or following, not leading.

Where we get stuck in the journey to corporate accountability is when people don’t move because they don’t want be vulnerable — to face risk. So nothing moves. Someone must move first. That’s where leadership comes in.

When leaders go first and demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable — open to risk — demonstrating trust — that it will be okay — it enables the rest of the company to follow suit. This vulnerability is key to accountability. How can you hold someone accountable if you are not willing to model the vulnerability and trust accountability requires?

Important Aspects of Corporate Accountability

Now that we’ve established the importance of psychological safety — trust and vulnerability — we can address a few aspects of accountability.

  • Humility: Accountability starts with the courage to express things like, “I don’t have time,” or “I don’t know how,” and ask for help. Think about that for a minute. How easy is it to tell your peers, your boss, your team these things. It doesn’t mean you are saying no – it means you are willing to ask for help. Having the humility to know you need help and the vulnerability to express it seeds the grounds for accountability. When I ask for help, ask for guidance, I communicate challenges and find the best path forward.
  • Difficult Conversations: Accountability requires leaders and employees to lean into difficult conversations. Leaders can begin this cycle by holding themselves accountable to the commitments they’ve made. With vulnerability and trust, I can then lean into conversations that don’t feel good (but do good) around these broken commitments.
  • Consistency: The final aspect of accountability means being consistent when it comes to consequences, but to act always with kindness. People should experience consistent responses — whether they’re in leadership or not. And those responses should include grace and mercy in the face of failure or reward for success. This consistency helps to build trust and vulnerability because people know what to expect.

Vulnerability Makes Organizations Successful

In my studies, I was curious about how and why some organizations can be so incredibly agile, and others so incredibly not. Sometimes, large companies with a rich history can act in surprisingly agile ways. Sometimes it is painful to watch a supposedly agile start-up clumsily lumber through the motions while opportunities pass them by. One of the differences I find is that those that are agile have psychological safety and openness. These things lead to trust, risk-taking and — and thus agility and innovation.

Agility requires accountability. Accountability requires vulnerability and trust. Vulnerability and trust require psychological safety which is why so many organizations struggle. People won’t take the risk of holding each other accountable.

As part of my own journey to accountability, I would love to hear your  perspective on this. Your authentic feedback is helpful to my development as I can always improve how we coach.

Today, in my consulting practice, I help leaders and teams lean into conversations that matter. Conversations that increase trust and inclusiveness that make it possible to act faster in times of need. People often want to focus on feedback and accountability. It’s understandable and I accommodate. In some ways, it’s semantics. You can’t get feedback and accountability without trust, openness and a penchant for action.