Accountability is critically important in any high-performance environment. While it is challenging for any one individual to meet or exceed the high expectations that come with high-performance, external sources of accountability help facilitate the process of maintaining standards of excellence.
This is intuitively recognized by most athletes who often set team goals of ‘hold each other accountable’, or the equivalent. Yet these same intentions are often associated with no real change. It seems that cultures of accountability are often discussed and never really implemented, at least with any sort of effectiveness or consistency.
The obvious exception is the programs, athletes, and coaches that are perennial champions. They have mastered the art of accountability. By definition, they are exceptional.
In this post, I’d like to take a look at why accountability is important, as well as some strategies that coaches can use to best hold teams and individuals accountable. Coaches who are able to consistently create high standards of behavior, and consistently create a culture of accountability to those standards, will be rewarded with consistently great performances.
Some questions to consider-
What are the long-term consequences of short-term failures to maintain accountability?
How can otherwise strong cultures slowly erode, leaving coaches wondering, ‘how did we get here?’?
What does it really mean to hold someone accountable?
Most people view accountability as brutal honesty, tough love, or a license to essentially insult others. Is this the best way to create accountability?
Why is it so difficult to hold others accountable? How can we overcome this challenge?
I’ll explore these questions below.
The team culture is ultimately about what people do, or don’t do. While it is influenced by thoughts and perceptions, it is action that expresses what the culture is really about it. Culture is about what’s expected and what’s acceptable, and this is manifested in day-to-day behavior.
Accountability is so important because it is the means by which cultural norms are enforced, or allowed to erode. It is a choice between the two. For every action or behavior misaligned with the established culture that goes unaddressed, the culture becomes weaker. Over time, these behaviors become acceptable and more individuals will act in this manner. Every time these behaviors are addressed, it becomes more and more evident that these behaviors are unacceptable. Individuals will stop acting in this manner.
Cultural erosion occurs every time someone looks the other way. Culture changes through small choices to uphold the vision, or not. It is in this manner that great programs and teams slide back toward norm. It is the almost invisible choice to let one more behavior go and inconsequential behaviors suddenly become consequential behaviors. Because of this dynamic, coaches have to realize that everything matters.
‘You’re either coaching it, or you’re allowing it to happen.’
This football coaches’ saying encapsulates the role of the coach in creating accountability for the team culture. The behaviors expressed as a result of the accepted cultural norms are the result of your choices as a coach.
The quote is about a lack of personal accountability and a failure to hold others accountable to high standards. As coaches, we must hold ourselves and others accountable to performance. It comes down to the facilitation of improvement. If we externalize blame to the swimmer, we give up the opportunity to improve ourselves as coaches. If we allow for mediocrity to happen, we are depriving our swimmers of the opportunity to improve themselves.
Of course, the opposite is true as well. Every time someone is held accountable to the cultural norms of the team, these norms are strengthened. Everyone is watching for what is acceptable. The more often the line between acceptable and unacceptable is clearly defined, the powerful these behavioral codes become.
As coaches, it starts and ends with us.
One of the assumptions about accountability is that most people don’t want to be held accountable. In my experience, most individuals DO want to be held accountable. Most swimmers want to improve. They want to get better and they want to know what they need to do to improve. However, most individuals do want to be held in a particular manner. They want to be held accountable in a manner that is explicit, fair, and consistent.
Tell people exactly what the problem is, and exactly what they can/should do about it. Be totally unambiguous. To make sure there are no misunderstandings, let individuals communicate back what they have received. The more explicit your message, the less room for error. If you want change, describe it specifically. If someone doesn’t know exactly what they are doing wrong, they can’t change it. If they don’t know what they can do about it, they won’t make any effective changes.
As a coach, it is your job to help facilitate the process. You don’t have to have, and probably shouldn’t always give, the answers to the swimmer. However, you need to be able to get them in the right direction. It’s called coaching.
This can be really uncomfortable. Get over it. If you want to be a leader, you have to do uncomfortable things. While it never really gets any easier to tell someone their effort/execution wasn’t good enough, it does get easier to remove the hesitation to act. It is a habit to see something wrong and immediately intervene. Develop the habit.
When faced with providing an individual with uncomfortable feedback, it can be helpful to remember the following. By failing to provide feedback, you are depriving someone of an opportunity to improve. Any failure to do so is due solely to your own discomfort. So, because of your own struggles, someone else suffers the consequences. Is that the type of coach you’d really like to be?
The worst strategy is a passive aggressive approach that utilizes subtle, vague offhand comments that allude to a specific issue. If there is a problem, lay it out directly and explicitly, leaving no room for misinterpretation. ‘Softening the blow’ will make the problem worse, not better.
Everyone wants to know the limits of what is acceptable. Be clear about where that line stands. By being explicit, that line becomes more and more defined.
Is your feedback fair? Is your feedback honest? Are you accurately describing the situation? Are you nitpicking, or providing real feedback that will make a positive difference? If the feedback is about a real performance problem, the swimmer will be receptive. Upon consistently receiving negative feedback that’s just fluff, swimmers start to tune it out. They become resentful. At the same time, providing unwarranted positive feedback can be just as problematic. Swimmers know the difference between praise and BS.
Fair can also be in the context of the nature of feedback. A simple heuristic is to provide feedback about the action, not about the person. There is a big difference between ‘that was a lazy effort’ and ‘you are a lazy person’. In the former case, you are providing feedback about a specific action. In the latter case, you are making a value judgment about an inalterable aspect of who someone is. How do you expect these two forms of feedback will be received? How will each statement leave the swimmer feeling? Which will better get the change YOU want? Swimmers are people. Remember it.
As problematic as a lack of accountability, inconsistent accountability is potentially even more damaging because swimmers learn they don’t have to listen. If you are going to require a specific behavior, skill, etc, you need to require it all the time. If you are inconsistent with what you require, individuals will interpret that to mean that the standards aren’t absolute. Consciously or not, they’ll test what they can get away with. Eventually, when a swimmer doesn’t feel like doing something, they won’t. The more often this happens, the harder it will be to actually create real change.
Swimmers want to know what’s expected and they want to know it’s expected all the time. When standards are inconsistent, swimmers have to use their own willpower to reach those standards because they have to hold themselves accountable. When they KNOW what’s expected, they can just execute because there is no ambiguity.
If you can’t be consistent with creating accountability around certain behaviors, don’t require them in the first place.
Consistently is not only important for specific behaviors. Consistency is important across individuals as well. It takes no time at all for swimmers to realize that standards are not being enforced consistently. Once that happens, even the most accurate feedback will not be received well. Consistency is critical.
No matter how well we provide accountability feedback, it’s effectiveness will ultimately be dictated by how that feedback is received and perceived by the swimmer.
How can we improve how feedback is received? In this case, it’s not what we do in the moment, but how we behave over time that will improve how feedback is received.
‘No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.’
Trite, over-used, and completely true. Everything you say and everything you do is demonstrating your ability to relate to and care about your swimmers.
What is your track record of caring about people, both as a team and for specific individuals?
This track record will dictate how your messages are received. If people don’t think you care or don’t take the time to relate to them as people, your message will be met with suspicion and hesitancy. In contrast, individuals are willing to hear the uncomfortable truth, when they KNOW it is well-intentioned because they know you care.
There are many ways to show that you care. Rather than identifying those strategies here, I’d like offer a simple suggestion. Try to ACTUALLY care about your swimmers. If you actually care, this will come across in your words, your behavior, and your interactions.
Coaches are in the difficult position of requiring swimmers to perform necessarily unpleasant tasks to achieve goals weeks, months, and even years in the future. This is particularly difficult in times where swimmers REALLY don’t want to perform a particular training task to a designated standard, yet the coach realizes the task is required to accomplish long-term goals.
This dynamic creates tension between coaches and swimmers when it appears that goals are misaligned. This tension can be defused by the same processes of caring and relating to the swimmers as people. The more swimmers know that coaches actually care about them as people and understand that the coach has their best interest in mind, the more receptive they will be to challenges and frank feedback. They KNOW it is well-intentioned and aimed at HELPING the swimmer.
To be an effective coach, you must directly challenge swimmers and require high standards of performance, especially at times when it is most difficult for swimmers to be held accountable. At the same time, coaches must be able to relate to their swimmers as people, and truly care about who they are and what they are working to accomplish. Many coaches are proficient at either of these skills. However, very few have mastered both. Those that have are the master coaches we all look up to.
*All of the above applies to providing feedback and accountability to ANYONE.
Many of the ideas described here were originally described in or inspired by the following books. They are well worth the time and effort to read.