It’s my opinion that today’s “best” practices of leaders not only fail to resolve the problems they’re meant to resolve or achieve the results they’re meant to achieve, they actually escalate problems. I’d like to recommend alternative practices to take their place. After all, reality has shifted and those who cling to old practices that no longer serve them and perhaps never did, will fail to thrive. Seriously. Fail to thrive.
Today, I touch on the third “best” practice and hope to provoke your thinking, in subsequent entries, regarding all six.
Worst “Best” Practice #3 – Holding People Accountable
Next to human connectivity, accountability is the single most powerful, most desired, yet least understood characteristic of a successful environment. The long-term benefits of accountability have enormous implications for the quality of our lives and there is a direct correlation between a company’s health and the degree of accountability displayed by its employees.
But holding people accountable doesn’t work. Why? Because accountability is an attitude; a personal, private, non-negotiable choice about how to live one’s life. It’s a desire to take responsibility for results; a bias towards solution, action. And in case you haven’t noticed, you cannot mandate a desire, a bias, a choice, or an attitude.
I remember working with a team of high potentials at a global shoe manufacturer. At one point, the founder of the company, a tall, imposing figure, walked into the room and sat in the back. I had just begun to explore the notion of accountability when he stood and thundered, “What I want to know is – if we take a successful store manager and move him into a territory that’s struggling and nothing improves, who’s accountable – the manager or the person who moved him?”
In other words, who will receive my wrath? At which point, forty intelligent people – the future leaders of his company – did their best to shrink their subatomic particles and vanish from his radar.
Why? Because most of us associate accountability with blame, culpability, being wrong, maybe even being fired. In fact, we’d likely define accountability as “clarity about whose head will roll when things go wrong.” No wonder we don’t eagerly raise our hands when we hear the question, “Who is accountable?” Instead, we insist that he, she, it, they did it to us! If he, she, it, they or the situation were different, we’d be happy, successful, have the results we want. And we roll out our victim list to justify our helplessness – all the reasons and excuses why things aren’t going well. We even try to convince others that we are more of a victim than they are.
- I have it worse than you do
- No, they’re really out to get me!
And when we win, we celebrate! My life is worse than yours! Hooray!
The victim mode has wonderful benefits! It’s not me, it’s you, it’s them. I’ve assessed the problem and you’re it. If you and everybody else would accommodate me, I’d be happier. I’m innocent, blameless, the quality of my life has nothing to do with me, so I don’t have to do anything. I can’t. It’s out of my hands. If it were in my hands, I’d take action.
When we shine a light on this, it starts to sound flawed.
I’m not saying our lists aren’t true. Every item on our lists may be 100% true. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not what’s happened to us, its what are we going to do about it?
So it’s understandable that in order to get people to focus on making things happen, fixing the problems, we announce that we are holding them accountable. And here’s what we get:
- People play not to lose instead of playing to win. Holding people accountable doesn’t instill enthusiasm. It usually creates an internal resistance, at best resentful compliance.
- Lack of clarity, lots of confusion. When people are scared of being blamed for poor results, no one wants to own anything or define their role in the outcome.
- Tunnel vision. People are so fearful of being blamed, their focus is on tracking evidence to justify mediocre results, rather than on overcoming the obstacles in their way.
- Passive/resistant work force. When command and control leaders say, “We need to be tougher on accountability”, what they get is a negative result quicker.
- Bitterness towards co-workers. You end up with an adversarial, divisive, tattle-tale environment in which people are keeping score on who is doing what and are quick to point out each other’s faults and mis-steps.
- Difficulty leading. People will stop coming to you because they are afraid to tell you if something is not working. And, if you don’t follow through on your threats, you lose credibility.
And much more, none of it good.
The accountable stance is:
Given my goals, how will I achieve them? Given the barriers to my progress and the current results on my plate, some of which are troubling, what am I going to do? Simply put – If it’s to be, it’s up to me.
What would be the implications if most of the people in an organization chose accountability as their way of life? How would you help them make that shift? What can you do to raise the bar on accountability in your organization?
You can find the answers in Chapter 3 of my upcoming book Fierce Leadership due out this September.
Susan Scott is the Founder and CEO of the global training company Fierce, Inc. whose clients include Fortune 1000 companies worldwide. For 13 years, Susan ran think tanks for CEOs and designed and delivered training to peers working with CEOs in 18 countries. In 2002, Fierce Conversations—Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time, was published in four countries and, shortly thereafter, was listed on The Wall Street Journal and UPI best seller lists, and was one of USA TODAY’S top 40 business books of 2002. Her much anticipated second book—Fierce Leadership: An Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices in Business Today will be published in September 2009. For more info on Susan Scott and Fierce, Inc. please visit www.FierceInc.com.