When considering which specific problem to address, take the time to uncover the most dominant issue.
Before you enter into an accountability discussion with an employee, determine the answers to two questions. The “what” question concerns the specifics of the expectation the employee “violated.” The “if” question determines whether you will say anything about the violated norm.
If you don’t nail the what question, the problem will recur. To figure out your “what” question, consider this example: A teenage daughter promises her father she’ll be home from her first date by midnight. The daughter then gets home at 1 a.m. In this situation, the “what” question involves asking why the daughter didn’t keep her word to her father, thus violating an important family rule.
After thinking carefully about his daughter’s infraction, the father understood that what really upset him was that she didn’t call when she knew she would be late and thus save him and her mother from worrying. And that’s exactly the “what” question that he brought up with his daughter.
When you are deciding which particular concern to discuss, first identify your priority among the issues at hand. Ask yourself what you would like to happen and what you’d don’t want to happen. Once you are sure what you want to address, express it to the offending party in a single, easily understandable sentence.
“Learning how to get at the gist of an infraction requires time and practice. Feeling pressured by time constraints and hyped up by emotions, most people miss the real deal.”
As you prepare your if question, understand that separating the serious from the trivial isn’t easy. Consider the consequences if you decide to bring up an issue in the first place. If the results might be too dire, you may need to “expand your zone of acceptance.” Remember that most people will automatically avoid bringing up unpleasant issues – because these issues are uncomfortable to discuss. Avoid choosing “the certainty of silence over the risk of speaking up.”
Failing to address accountability problems makes them fester and grow.
The very moment you decide in your head that another person is guilty of violating one of your expectations, and you decide to take the morally superior high road by holding him or her accountable, you risk poisoning the atmosphere. Sending an accountability discussion down the wrong path just takes a second, and it all happens inside your head.
When someone violates a social norm in a way that offends you, events take a predictable course: 1) You see what the other person did, 2) you tell yourself a story about why that person acted as he or she did, 3) this story makes you feel a certain way, and 4) these feelings prompt you to react.
If the story you tell yourself is negative, you become angry. Adrenaline floods your system. You go into fight-or-flight mode, which shuts down logical thought. You start thinking with a reptilian brain. Clearly, that’s not how you want to operate.
Someone in this mental state can easily make a common blunder in thinking, the “fundamental attribution error.” Not thinking clearly, he or she comes to believe that other people say or do bad things due to their character flaws. The attribution error overlooks the impact of external circumstances over which the apparent bad actors have little or no control – but which may provoke their actions.
In accountability discussions, you must master the stories you tell yourself. Don’t tell yourself an “ugly story” about the offender; don’t assume the worst. An ugly story will only make you angry; you won’t think clearly and you could make a fundamental attribution error. When you indulge in ugly stories, you no longer see norm violators as human beings. You see them as villains – a counterproductive position.
In your “accountability discussions,” start by describing the gaps you perceive between you and the offending party.
The word “gap” in this context means the grave, complicated consequences of “violated promises, broken commitments and bad behaviors.” Describing the gap to the other party is a three-step process:
- “Start with safety” – Speak about the gap straightforwardly. For example a parent could say, “You said you were going to have your room cleaned before dinner. It’s nine o’clock, and it’s still not done.” Show respect. The other party needs to feel safe and not threatened. Let that person know you care about his or her goals. Extend the benefit of the doubt and speak plainly.
- “Share your path” – Make sure the other party knows exactly where you’re headed when you bring up a gap. Stick with the facts. Describe your interpretation of the gap.
- “End with a question” – Get the other person’s point of view. For example, ask: “What happened?”
If you know what to say and do, these discussions can go well and lead to improvements.
Employees who work under your direction will sometimes let you down. They’ll make commitments and not keep them. This is their gap. If you raise that gap in a discussion, you face the task of motivating the employee who dropped the ball. Forget rah-rah “motivation with a capital M,” forget charisma, and don’t try to motivate through power and fear.
Deal in outcomes and results. Describe the “consequence bundle” – the assortment of good and bad consequences that will come from particular behaviors. Make outcomes your motivational focus. “Natural consequences” work best; for example, if a person doesn’t take necessary medication, he or she will get sick. To motivate others, enable them; make it as easy as possible for them to do whatever they need to do. For instance, if someone who works for you faces a boring, awful task, do what you can to make it easier and more enjoyable.
Having a shared, clear plan improves accountability, so make sure your employees know exactly what you and your organization expect of them. List the four “WWWF” components: “who does what by when,” and then “follow-up.” Spell out each component in detail to preserve the essence of accountability. Communicate your WWWF plan to all affected parties.
“When you’ve gone silent but your body language keeps sending out hostile signals or you’re dropping hints or relying on sarcasm, you probably ought to speak up.”
Sometimes while you deal with one pressing accountability situation, another or another dozen, will crop up. Remain flexible and focused. You can’t shunt the most immediate problems to the side. Use your newfound accountability knowledge to deal with multiple issues. It’s not easy, but a capable manager or executive must be able to keep numerous balls in the air. Handle demands sequentially. Deal with one problem, then another, then another – “one at a time.”
Develop your “accountability skills.”
Certain techniques and tools work regardless of the yeah-buts that people inevitably try to use.
“No simple rules…dictate which violated expectations are trivial, which are consequential and which you should deal with.”
Consider five of the most challenging situations:
- Confront the people in charge – Calling out people in authority can be dangerous. When confronting bosses, make them feel safe. Communicate to difficult bosses that their bad behavior will sooner or later cause them problems. Place the negative consequences right where they belong – directly with the boss. This is will get his or her attention and should bring about better behavior.
- Separate from the group – Here’s a hypothetical situation: You’re an accountant, and you know that some other accountants in your firm routinely violate protocol standards when they work for clients. They often do the easy thing, not the right thing. What should you do? First, speak clearly – for example, “I don’t want this to come off as an accusation; it’s an honest question. Aren’t we supposed to [fill in the blank], or are there circumstances I’m unaware of?” No matter what situation you may be up against, this sensitive approach will be far more effective than if you come off as a harsh critic or – as in this case – as a member of the protocol police.
- One-sided disagreements – In relationships, when disagreements occur, one person often wants to speak about things while the other person would do anything to avoid the discussion. This is a common pattern in strained relationships. If you want to bring things out into the open, don’t attack the other party. State that the current situation is endangering the relationship. Approach things as someone who wants the relationship to endure and who hopes to foster a shared discussion.
- “Hearsay” – Many times, employees disparage other workers behind their backs to their managers. How are managers supposed to deal with this hearsay? You can’t use secondhand information to critique the employee in question. But if the hearsay criticism is serious enough, a responsible manager also can’t ignore it. The best course is to secure your own firsthand information. Then deal with what you’ve learned.
- Incompetent people who think they are competent – Some inept individuals get by based on the “illusion of competency” because no one ever holds them accountable. Allowing incompetent people to continue in their jobs means settling for inferior work and inferior results. Yet managers are usually reluctant to say anything negative. They know criticism would devastate these people, who often operate with their heads in the clouds. Try engaging in accountability discussions with such employees on smaller matters as a prelude to more serious issues.
People with high accountability skills praise others.
When it comes to relationships and meeting or abusing expectations, the situation isn’t always dire. If someone exceeds your expectations, celebrate them. Praise those responsible for making things turn out well. This requires sensitivity on your part. To praise others, see the positive in their behavior.
“The most important 10 minutes of your day are those you spend doing something to boost the people you work with.” (former Ford Motor chairman Donald Petersen)
The praise you give someone can have a beneficial effect. American wit and author Mark Twain famously said that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.” Take a page from former Ford Motor chairman Donald Petersen. Every morning, he would hand write “short, sincere, positive messages to people he worked with.”
Accountability begins with you.
Before you attempt to finesse an “accountability discussion” with someone else, work on yourself. In the final analysis, you can never change anyone but yourself. With this reality in mind, understand that accountability discussion tools and techniques are remarkably potent.
“When we approach an accountability discussion, it’s important to know that we must work on ourselves first.”
Think of these tools as general principles, not as a detailed road map. Weave these guidelines into workable scripts to help you deal successfully with accountability situations as they arise. Make it your goal to “build commitment and establish a foundation for accountability” within your organization. Foremost, hold yourself accountable.