Expectations and Accountability

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:18

Expectations and accountability are two words that get thrown around a great deal in leadership. We are told in order to accomplish results we must have “high expectations and hold people accountable to those expectations.” While I absolutely agree with that statement, the problem lies in the perception of these two items. I do not think many would disagree that having high expectations and holding people to those expectations is needed to create a successful environment. With that being said, think about this: What would happen if a principal stood in front of their staff, or a teacher stood in front of their class at the start of the school year and said, “this year, we will focus on high expectations and accountability.” Would your initial reaction be one of excitement for what the year would bring, or something else? I am guessing “something else”.

Here lies the problem. How do we create a culture that has high individualized expectations for all members and holds those people accountable to accomplishing the lofty goals we have set out to achieve? There are some important pieces to consider when thinking about expectations and accountability. Before I get into discussing these ideas, there is question that must be answered.

As a leader, do you see the person in front of you, or do you see what the person could become with your love, support, and investment?

If you only can see the person in front of you for who they are right now and what they have to give right now, then before you go on reading, you need to check your priorities and what you value. If you are only concerned about the work produced rather than the people you are serving, no level of expectations and accountability will accomplish anything because they are only emptied words and promises. Much like the verse to start this post from 1 John. Love comes in actions and truth, not in words or speech. To create any level of expectation and accountability that moves your team in a positive way, it must come from a place of love and truth. People do not get better by your simply telling them that you have high expectations, or by setting outlandish benchmarks for them to achieve, or by telling them that they must be accountable to what they said they would do. No words or speeches create high expectations or accountability. Only love through actions and truths over time can help people accomplish great things.

Let me share a secret, as a leader you create a culture, but you do not do the work that gets the results…your people do.  The work does not matter, or even get completed, without the people you serve. For this reason, your focus matters more than anything else. Any level of creating high expectations for people requires you to focus on people. It requires that you see what people can become. You then help people reach their potential and hold them accountable because you care about them and their personal improvement more than you care about any results or outcomes you are trying to accomplish through them.

Before I leave this post, I want spend some time addressing two common pitfalls I see from leaders with expectations and accountability.

I think the first common mistake many make is trying to create high expectations that can be applied to everyone in your school. Any good teacher knows, it is not about a one size fits all “high expectation” model that gets results; rather it is about having appropriate expectations for all the students. The same applies to leadership. Every person we serve is starting in a different place, and every person’s journey is going to be different. To think that we can just set a high expectation bar is much like the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Is it appropriate to judge an animal by focusing on a skill that the animal was never designed to accomplish? Fish swim, they do not climb trees and no expectation, no matter how high it is set, will ever help a fish achieve the goal of climbing a tree. So, the question we have to ask ourselves as leaders is where is each individual’s genius (at their point in our journey) which can be used to help us build the school’s students need to be successful. Once we know where each individual can contribute their best selves, then we can start moving the bar of expectations to accomplish things that are beyond what people believed they would ever be able to achieve.

When you think about accountability, what comes to mind? Is your reaction to the word positive? Negative? Accountability is simply accepting responsibility for one’s actions. I think almost everyone wants to know how they are doing at a given task, and want to find ways to make it better. Very few want to turn a blind eye and just go through the the motions with no feedback. I have never met a teacher who wants to get up each morning to go do bad work with kids. So, the challenge comes when we talk to people about how their work is aligning to what is set out to be accomplished. Accountability takes on a negative connotation because we typically use it in terms of pointing out when people are falling short or are not doing what they said they would. We build trust in accountability by also pointing out when people get it right. If we set expectations together and are working to accomplish those goals, people need to know when are doing the work that is on task, in alignment, and productive, in reaching those expectations just as much, if not more, than they need to told when the miss the mark. Accountability has a negative perception around it, because it is often only used by leaders in a negative way. We must find ways to make accountability about acknowledging how everyone is doing, when they get it right, and when they might need more support, and accountability becomes more about growth and coaching than it does about addressing those who are not meeting expectations. In Barbara Fredrickson’s book, Positivity, she shares that her research showed an approximate 3 to 1 ratio of positivity as being ideal in terms of high functioning teams and relationships. Fredrickson explains how experiencing positive emotions to negative emotions in this approximate ratio leads people to achieve high levels of well-being and resilience. This does not mean we ignore issues if the work is falling short, it just means we need to point out when people are at or above expectations more than we point out when they miss the mark.

Expectations and accountability, yes, they are buzz words that are used too often in education and in leadership, but only when they come from a place of love and support, rather than punishment and distrust, can you build a culture that will ever hope to accomplish any success.

Until next time…keep learning; keep growing; keep sharing!

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