The Topic Managers Hate to Talk About

imageThis week I’m in Austin meeting with a group of managers about a new training series I’ve developed for them and their employees. The goal of the series is to introduce some basic sales and service skills to an organization that has historically been very operationally-focused. Eleven frontline managers have agreed to participate in the pilot program and provide feedback on the material before rolling it out to the rest of the company.

Yesterday, we spent the day talking about performance management and the role of the manager in the development of an employee’s skill set. It was very fulfilling to see a group of people get excited about playing an active role in the growth of their team members. Everyone was engaged and the discussion was lively.

About half-way through the workshop though, the atmosphere in the room changed dramatically. A room full of enthusiastic, talkative people suddenly went silent; and it was my fault. I killed the mood by uttering a single word – “accountability.”

We’d started the day by talking about the unique role a person’s manager plays in their development. We spent a good deal of time talking about strategic planning, goal-setting and performance assessments against identified skills and behaviors. And then, after walking through a process for creating individual development plans, I said “it’s time to talk about accountability.”

Admittedly, I wasn’t surprised by the reluctance to discuss this topic. Accountability is a problem for most organizations. That’s because they feel like accountability is a negative thing. But the truth is, most employees feel better when an environment of accountability exists. It allows everyone to play by the same set of rules. It removes feelings of animosity and resentment that result from people being treated differently.

Managers dislike accountability because they equate it with confrontation. However, in the right context, accountability isn’t confrontational or even difficult. It occurs naturally.

I define accountability as the application of truth and consequences. When a manager commits to being honest with an employee about their behavior and applying natural consequences as a result of that behavior, accountability exists. Issues arise when the manager ignores the truth and/or fails to apply the appropriate consequence.

Consequences can be either positive or negative. Praise, for instance, is a positive consequence. Counseling and redirection are negative consequences.

We naturally move toward things that cause us positive feelings and away from those that cause negative ones. What happens when you praise someone for a job well done? They seek to recreate the positive feeling they received as a result of the praise and repeat the behavior. When you counsel someone regarding behavior contrary to what is desired, they feel uncomfortable and seek to avoid a repeat of the negative consequence.

So what happens when you fail to hold someone accountable for undesirable behavior? You get more of it. That’s because behavior that may be undesirable to you or the organization may be desirable to the employee. Inactivity, procrastination and producing sloppy work are undesirable behaviors, but they may be more desirable to the employee than the effort required to perform to expectations. In the absence of accountability – an honest appraisal coupled with an appropriate consequence – they seek to repeat the preferred behavior. So you get a repeated less-than-stellar results.

Anytime a manager tells me about a problem employee they have, one of the first things I tell them is “You will receive an abundance of what you praise or tolerate. You have to hold them accountable for their actions.” The keys to establishing a culture of accountability are as follows:

1. As soon as possible following the observed behavior, provide an honest assessment to the employee. Tell them want you observed and what was good or bad about it.

2. Apply an appropriate consequence. Praise/reward them for positive behavior. Correct/discipline them for undesirable behavior.

3. Make sure they walk away with an understanding of your expectation and support for continued (if desirable) or altered (if undesirable) behavior.

During yesterday’s workshop, I walked the managers through some simple ways to begin building a culture of accountability. As they became more comfortable with the idea of positive consequences as a balance to the negative aspect of accountability, the energy returned to the room. Pretty soon, we had segued into a discussion of recognition and incentives – two components of performance management that work best when a foundation of accountability exists.

As difficult as it is to discuss the topic of accountability, The hard part still lies ahead. They still have to follow through, but I’m looking forward to seeing what changes begin to take place as these leaders begin to address this important aspect of their role. Of course, I’ll be checking back in with them from time to time, just to hold them accountable.

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