This Accountability Tactic Works For Kids, Teens, And Work Teams

By Josh Davis

February 28, 2018

You asked a team member for an analysis of the competition three weeks ago–where is it? The marketing team said they could create some new concepts–it’s been a month and you’re still waiting. Everyone in your department committed to giving feedback to one another more often, but nothing’s changed.


Why is it so hard to hold people accountable? Even the managers who seem to be good at it often use different methods, and while it’s great to talk about building a “culture of accountability,” the fact is that culture emerges based on how people behave. Here’s what it really takes to encourage those behaviors.

Consistency Is Key

I’ve been a manager, a coach, a professor, and the head of a research lab. But the role where I’ve struggled the most to coax accountability from my teams has been as a math and science teacher in a Brooklyn public high school.

Many of my students arrived with low self-esteem regarding the subject matter, and little experience with success in the school system. I tried lots of things to keep them accountable, from angrily threatening consequences to handing out prizes and offering individual coaching to help struggling students past obstacles. But eventually it all became clear: The size, or even type, of the method–whether it was a punishment or a reward–hardly mattered compared with the consistency of it. If I checked up on my students in a way where I’d really know if they did their work, they would do their work. If I did it only sometimes, they mostly wouldn’t.

It all comes down to simple principles that behavioral psychologists taught us over 60 years ago. Checking in consistently is what’s known as imposing a “continuous reinforcement schedule.” The goal is simply to get a similar response every time you perform a certain action. The alternative is intermittent reinforcement, where you get the same response only sometimes.

For example, if I’m trying to get my toddler to clean up his toys, I can tell him “Good job!” and give him a sticker after doing it. If I do that every time he cleans up his toys, he’ll quickly get the idea that cleaning leads to Daddy being happy and him earning a sticker. But if I only sometimes do that and other times don’t really seem to care if he cleans up–and get angry with him only once in a while for not cleaning up–then he may never really know what it’ll take to turn Daddy into a reliable sticker dispenser.

And consequently, the accountable response I’m trying to elicit from him will take a lot longer to, well, stick.


Accountable Shouldn’t Mean Inflexible

The same psychological principle that works for toddlers and teens applies to adults, too. Think about how we attempt to control traffic, for example: If you want people to stop running red lights, you put a camera not at some intersections, but at every intersection. If people know for sure that they’ll get a ticket if they run the light, they will stop. If they might but probably won’t get a ticket, they’ll be more likely to take their chances–and will learn over time that, on average, they’re rewarded (no ticket, shorter travel time) more often than not.

There are actually some benefits to intermittent reinforcement. Slot machines are the classic example: Keep playing them, and every so often you’ll get a great response, even though you have no idea when. People who stick with it long enough to get addicted will sit there for hours, pulling the lever nearly continuously, and they find it really hard to quit when it would be useful to shift to some other task. That kind of obsession–in less extreme contexts–isn’t always a bad thing. For example, some companies in hazardous or health-related businesses need their employees to think about safety first, and to never let up on their vigilance. Regardless of any new pressures or organizational changes that come into play, they’ve got to follow safety protocols almost reflexively, and avoid cutting corners no matter what.

In other work situations, though–especially those where speed and agility are key–it’s important that people adopt new behaviors quickly, and then be ready to stop those same behaviors when they’re no longer useful, so they can learn new ones. Ideally, you want your team members to be as accountable to the new way of doing things as they were to the old way. And in situations like that, continuous reinforcement is the way to go.

For example, I might want someone to report to me weekly sometimes, monthly other times, and in a totally different format when they’re temporarily serving on another person’s team. I want them to start doing so quickly, and to shift to the new plan just as quickly as soon as that’s needed. Continuous reinforcement–checking in at each scheduled time and responding thoughtfully–is the best strategy here; the nature of the schedule can change, but the action (filing that report on time) stays the same.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that managers always have choices when it comes to imposing accountability: You can check in while being a jerk, or while being nice, or while being indifferent; you can offer threats, punishments, rewards, or promises. That will change the emotions in the room, but not the reinforcement schedule. And if I had to choose whether to check in as a jerk or a caring mentor, I choose the latter, because you’ll get more quality and commitment every time.



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