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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

12.05.14‘Tacit Accountability’ and the Art of Making People Better

“Accountability,” a colleague once said, “is a gift. It’s a way to help people make sure they accomplish the things they want to do.”  It was an unorthodox way of thinking about the concept.  Most people hear the word “accountability” with a negative connotation.  Nobody likes to be held accountable.  Few people really enjoy holding others accountable, but my colleague described his role as a leader as being that of helping the people who worked for him accomplish the things they set out to do (and/or the things they needed to do to be successful in the organization’s eyes).  Accountability was the word he used for that.

Saying to someone: “You said you really wanted to have X done by now. How’s it coming?” was helping them to be the person they set out to be. They probably didn’t always LOVE every moment of “Last week you said you were going to do X, let’s take a look at it and figure out what needs to happen to get it done” but they appreciated the structure he provided.

Recently, the US Soccer Federation asked me to help some of their elite coaches think about how to help other coaches get better faster.  We called that topic Performance Management, and it centered on how to get people more high-quality useful and productive feedback more often.  The key to that process, I realized, was Tacit Accountability.   In Practice Perfect, Katie and Erica use the word to describe the expectation during practice that people will put feedback to use, rather than just “take” it.  But more broadly I realized, Tacit Accountability can apply whenever people get feedback… not just during practice. The idea is that every time you give feedback you are not only giving information to someone but communicating and reinforcing what feedback means.  Is it a throw away?  Am I expected to use it? Tacit Accountability is the degree to which you are able to communicate that it’s the expectation that feedback gets used, attended to, even anticipated.

Here are some examples of what Tacit Accountability would  look like:

You are supporting/mentoring/supervising a teacher or coach. You give her useful specific feedback- something like: “When you explained what you wanted your students to do, the content was too wordy. There were a lot of unnecessary words. The extra verbiage confused the kids and diluted the key ideas.  It made you seem unsure of what you wanted. The time it took caused them to lose focus when they wanted to get to work. Next time try to see if you can deliver your explanation with more Economy of Language.”

That’s good feedback.  But what happens now?  Does she nod earnestly and then walk away and ignore you? Does she intend to follow-through but fail to?  If so, she will be learning to ignore or neglect or aspire-to-use-but-not-really-use your feedback, getting more familiar with that experience each time she does it. In the long run that’s probably a bigger issue than economy of language in giving directions.

Building Tacit Accountability into your session might look like this:

First you might cause her to practice right way: “I wrote down the directions you gave. Let’s go through and see if we can reduce the words by half.”  You might even follow up with, “Great. Now pretend I’m your class. Let’s see how it sounds.” Your colleague is practicing using your feedback.  It’s now more likely to help her, and it builds a culture of follow-through: get feedback; use feedback.

You also might build in some Tacit Accountability through Predictable Observation.  “Great,” you might say, “I’ll stop by for a few minutes tomorrow and watch for your economy of language and see if I can tell you how you’re doing.”  This is interesting.  Ideally the tone is warm and helpful but it’s clear: we’re not just talking here. I’m gonna come see how you do.  If your colleague struggles you’ll probably want to be positive—the goal of accountability is to help her—but again focus on application: “It’s tough to do, right? Let’s practice a bit more and I’ll come by again soon.”  As soon as you walked into the room you’d be helping her though, even without more feedback.  She’d know exactly why you were there and would start to self-correct her own language in anticipation of what you might observe.

You might even muscle up your Predictable Observation by adding a signal.  “I’ll stop by for a few minutes tomorrow and watch for your economy of language and see if I can tell you how you’re doing.  I’ll just make this gesture if you should try to tighten up a bit. Thumbs up means everything is going great.” We recently tried a version of this in one of our workshops.  We’d been struggling recently to help teachers make their Cold Calling positive and warm and conversational.  We noticed that the best teachers did several key things while they Cold Called. They smiled a lot, they made non-verbal gestures to affirm that they were listening (tapping their temple, say), they gave lots of wait time, and they moved around, meandering as if they were lost in conversation.

The movement part was surprisingly important.  Many teachers seemed stilted and awkward without it.  Moving helped them go slowly and let students think.  But even with feedback we couldn’t really get people to meander while they Cold Called in practice.  We’d give the feedback and ask them to practice again but if 20% of the room was able to meander while Cold Calling the first time, perhaps 40% were the second time. Not enough.  So we tried this: We gave the “try to meander” feedback but added: “We’ll be coming around as you practice and looking to see if you’re able to meander.  If you doing it we’ll smile or give you a thumbs up. If you need to move a little more, no problem, we’ll make this gesture (imagine ordering a round of drinks here) to remind you.” (PS we smiled when we made that gesture to remind people we were on their side.)

The results were amazing.  We’ve never had a workshop where so many people nailed the meandering part. But here’s the interesting thing.  We only had to make the gesture two or three times.  People started meandering as soon as we started to come around.  Just seeing us reminded them to meander and as we started to think about giving the gesture, they started to move. The reminder of seeing us was enough to remind them to try it. Voila: Tacit Accountability.

Back to your meeting with that colleague you’re trying to help, though. There are of course other ways you could build Tacit Accountability.  You could give say, “Give it a try tomorrow and email me to let me know how it goes.”  Just that says, I expect you to try and will help you to make sure you do by asking you to discuss it with me.”  You could say, “Great. Let’s plan some key directions into your lesson plans together now.” Or “Great, why don’t you revise some key directions from your lesson plans to be more economical and then shoot me an email with the changes you made.”  The accountability has helped before you’ve even read the email.

If you’re a coach you might consider using “Aligned Observation” to stress Tacit Accountability.  Let’s say you are a soccer coach working on shifting the point of attack in the back line and you offer an important teaching point to your players, “Girls, when we shift the point of attack our passes need to be crisp and fast. We need to force the opposition to run laterally to keep their shape.” Then you start to practice.  The content of next ten things you say to your girls is very important.  If, say, seven of your next ten comments focus on  the speed of their passes, you will do two things. You will help the girls to focus their minds on your teaching point and develop their skills more intentionally, and you will show them that when you teach something it is important enough to you that you look for it and see whether they do it.  You will be making a long run investment in a culture of follow-through on the things you teach.  “Yes, that’s the speed, Sarah.  More pace on that ball, Heather!”  By aligning most of your feedback to what you taught you show that your teaching matters. If, however, you ask your girls to practice crisp fast passes but make most of your subsequent comments about factors other than speed of ball movement you will do the opposite.  “Be farther to the left, Sarah.” “Good hustle, Heather.”  Now your teaching point on ball movement has disappeared into the ether.  You don’t remember it enough to comment on it; why should they?

Similarly, let’s say you’ve finished your “speed of ball movement drill.”  You might say something like  what I saw a coach say yesterday.  “Girls,” What did we work on in our warm up?  [Speed of ball movement, coach!]   Good. So what should I see when we scrimmage? [Speed of ball movement, coach!]  The message is that what we do in practice is supposed to show up in the games; what we talked about we strive to use. That’s Tacit Accountability.

It’s critical in developing people through feedback; it’s critical in practice and it’s critical in the classroom.

I’ll leave it there for now but have further thoughts to share in a subsequent post on the topic.


3 Responses to “‘Tacit Accountability’ and the Art of Making People Better”

  1. Joshua
    December 12, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    I love this idea of building accountability into our feedback and building a culture where utilizing feedback is the norm. One of my goals for this academic year is to improve my accuracy, speed and impact of my feedback and this will help immensely.
    And I believe that too often we give students/players feedback and it is seen as an empty gesture both from the student/player perspective – “that sounds good, but I don’t think I will/know how to use it” or from the teacher/coach perspective – “I just gave some great feedback, I am sure they will apply it but I am not going to check”. The Ronald Reagan quote of “trust but verify” is certainly applicable in these situations.

    PS Will the work you did with the US Soccer Federation be made available to the public in the form of a pdf or podcast/video?

    • Doug Lemov
      December 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm

      Thanks, Joshua- Trust but verify is a great phrase. We often use it to discuss behavioral corrections in the classroom as well. Tell the student what he needs to do. Begin to walk away as if you couldn’t imagine a world in which he wouldn’t do it. Glance back to confirm follow through. We call this a confirmation glance. The distance between the correction and the confirmation glance–half a second versus ten seconds–is critical…. and correlates to how likely the follow through really is. anyway i kind of wonder if there’s a connection between that and other feedback. Do we sometimes give feedback, glance away metaphorically (ie wait a few minutes) and then check back in to see if it’s being used. If not: “Just a minute Jason. Four or five minutes ago we talked about being up on your toes when you receive the ball. SO what should i be seeing whenever you are receiving a ball? Great I’ll be looking ot see that all practice long.”

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