Common Leadership Errors: Focusing on Backward Accountability

Feedback is a critical component of helping others improve their performance. Information about what behaviors to repeat or do differently in given situations allows for continuous improvement over time. Feedback also aids in building complex behaviors where nuanced responding is required. Providing feedback is not a new concept; however, it is still widely underutilized and misused by many leaders. While there are many common leadership errors people make when providing feedback, this blog is dedicated to one such error when providing constructive feedback.

The focusing on backward accountability occurs when leaders spend too much of the time focusing on undesired behavior when providing constructive feedback. While identifying the behavior to be changed is necessary, devoting too much of the conversation to this behavior, or what is going to happen if it continues, makes the feedback less helpful and more like a personal attack. When people feel personally attacked, the ability to learn is decreased, making the person providing the feedback ineffective as a leader. A statement like, “Why would you (insert undesired behavior here)? I can’t believe what I just saw. Don’t you know you could get into real trouble (or hurt) doing that? Listen, that’s unacceptable here, and if I see anything like that again, I am going to write you up. That could cause a lot of problems, and you know better. I’d better not see this again.” This might make the feedback giver feel better—like they have addressed the problem, but it’s not likely going to be influential. Add discipline to this feedback, and the situation will be made worse.

Instead of focusing on backward accountability when giving feedback, leaders should focus on forward-looking accountability. The focus of forward-looking accountability is to gain commitment on behavior change the next time the person is in a similar situation. Here you will still point out the undesired behavior, and that behavior’s impact, but the conversation should be focused on what to do next time and ensure that there is an indication (or commitment) that the person will shift to a desired behavior. An example of constructive feedback that is forward-looking accountability might sound something like this, “I noticed you did most of the talking during that meeting, and it looked like the group was not engaged. Try this, before tomorrow’s meeting, I’d like you to draft an agenda for the meeting and use the agenda to develop open-ended questions around key topic areas where you need input or dialog. I’d be happy to review the agenda with you ahead of time to help you develop those questions. This should help with engagement and collaboration. Is that something you’d be willing to try?” Notice that the focus of the conversation is on what to do next. Forward-looking accountability is all about future behavior change. You can’t influence behavior that’s already happened, but you can influence what someone does next. Focusing there will allow you to be much more influential.

Feedback is one of the best and most practical tactics in performance improvement. The words and focus of those conversations matter and will determine if someone will approach or avoid a leader next time. Shifting how we talk about performance can improve our influence and leadership ability. Moving from backward-looking to forward-looking accountability will help create faster behavior change and therefore make a leader more influential. This will improve the work culture and drive organizational success.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.