A lot of challenges and confusion in the workplace, and in all parts of our lives, boil down to avoidance. When we avoid problems or cover over conflicts, and act as though everything is fine when we know it’s not, it can lead to even bigger problems. The antidote for avoidance is accountability.

Accountability may be one of the most important skills and practices, especially during this time of dynamic change, formidable threats and significant possibilities. Accountability is particularly essential for leaders, who engage and interact in an array of relationships and across a multitude of teams. Accountability helps us to find solutions and overcome obstacles with creativity and to work with a sense of urgency.

Accountability means aligning around clear commitments for an agreed upon vision for what is being accomplished as well as how. It means accepting responsibility for honest and ethical conduct in our words and actions. It’s the process of aligning our differences through greater understanding.

Accountability alone, though, is not enough. By itself, it can be cold and harsh and can undermine the very visions and goals we aim to achieve. Humans need more than aligning around goals. We breathe, act and live in relationship to one another. We need to care about each other. We need to feel safe and connected to those we work with. And we need meaning, motivation and purpose. Any business needs to value what it produces along with its most important asset: Its people.

To support our common humanity at work, we also need compassion. The practice of compassion means: 1.) To be aware of and feel others’ feelings; 2.) To aspire to cultivate greater understanding; and 3) the motivation to help and to heal.

Compassionate accountability integrates clarity, alignment and purposeful action with care and connection. It is a trainable method to leverage trust and understanding to achieve greater effectiveness and results, to reduce misunderstandings and conflicts, and to provide a way to more effectively achieve our goals, objectives and visions.

Cultures that emphasize accountability without compassion can be cold and often are harsh. Cultures that emphasize compassion without accountability tend to be low in energy and ineffective. Environments that are low in both compassion and accountability are dull and chaotic. The sweet spot, the place for cultivating healthy, thriving, effective cultures, is an environment that excels in both compassion and accountability: the practice of compassionate accountability.

Low compassion High compassion
Low accountability Dull and chaotic Low energy and ineffective
High accountability Cold and harsh Caring and effective

What are the key best practices for creating a culture of compassionate accountability? Consider these tips:

  1. Start by stopping: Knowing and understanding ourselves by cultivating self-awareness takes time and effort, but it is so worth it! Stopping, really stopping — such as through a regular meditation or reflection practice — is like hitting the reset button. Make time when you can step out of the stream of busyness and activity of your life.
  2. Turn toward inner conflicts: Facing, not avoiding, inner conflicts helps us appreciate our own depth, complexity and flexibility. Understanding our paradoxes and contradictions is the path to clarity and freedom. Engaging with our inner conflicts is an important part of growth and development, especially for leaders.
  3. Engage with outer conflicts with compassion: Conflicts and misunderstandings with others provide opportunities for growth, learning and connection. We can notice any tendencies to avoid conflict, and instead lean in. Listen. Be curious. Experiment with ways to address conflict and practice self-compassion.
  4. Strive toward alignment via accountability: Accountability helps us align our actions with our goals. This means holding ourselves and others accountable for our expectations and choices, for the process, and for how we respect and take care of our relationships.
  5. Cultivate courage: By letting go of and transforming desires and fears and avoidance patterns, we cultivate courage, as well as the space for positive change.
  6. Prioritize relationships: Compassionate accountability is a practice of cultivating connection, understanding, trust and real connection. The apparent goal is to accomplish important things together, but at heart, it’s about fostering healthy, vibrant and effective relationships with team members.
  7. Build supportive communities: Being part of a community not only feels good, but it is a tremendous way to learn and cultivate listening, understanding and alignment — even in the midst of inevitable challenges, misalignments and breakdowns in the workplace.
  8. Practice: Every leadership “moment” provides an opportunity to learn, grow and understand. We can also grow as leaders through personal development and by bettering our personal relationships, which can lead to great self-awareness. Practicing leadership in our personal lives prepares us to lead more effectively at work.
  9. Expect change to happen quickly and gradually: When it comes to inner and outer growth, it helps to be both patient and impatient. On the one hand, we can’t expect instant results. Lasting change requires patience and diligence. On the other hand, don’t wait. The moment is now. By continually seeking change, we allow for it to unfold in sudden and surprising ways.

Compassionate accountability is exactly the kind of practice we need to do — not only from leaders but also in all aspects of society. It’s the language of the heart, of care and love, integrated with the language of honesty, integrity and effectiveness. It’s the language of problem-solving, of focusing on results while applying the healing properties of understanding. Our enormous challenge — and opportunity — is to transform the ways we work and support others to achieve better results.