Can you count on those around you?


In our work, leaders often complain that “He/she/they just aren’t doing what I asked them to do”.  Alongside the content, usually comes a big dose of emotion – which can be anything from anger to resignation, from frustration to despair.
In the wider world, the term accountability appears often in the news. Almost always the implication of the term in this context is that people should lose their job, or even their liberty, if they fail to deliver what is expected.
But is this what accountability really means? Are we just talking about something punitive, a big stick that is held over others (or ourselves) to ensure that we do what we are supposed to? Personally, this approach to accountability is likely to make me perform less well – not better.
People in organisations are required to deliver things as part of their roles. How can we ensure that they make the changes necessary in order to do so? How do we create real accountability in those around us?

Change or die?

In his wonderful book ‘Change or Die’, Alan Deutschman talks about patients facing surgery for chronic heart disease. Doctors tell them that they can have surgery but, unless they change their habits (overeating, smoking, drinking, exercise and stress), the disease will return and it will kill them. Study after study has shown that 90% of these patients fail to sustain changes in their behaviour. So, faced with the choice of ‘change or die’, it seems that 9 in 10 of us choose death!
Deutschman describes how it is the approach of the doctors that drives these startlingly poor statistics. As in so many efforts at organisational change, they rely on the three ‘F’s:-

    Fear – if you don’t then…

    Facts – rational argument/s

    Force – if at first you don’t succeed, apply more pressure!

This is sobering for those of us engaged in trying to change how people behave in organisations – where the consequences of not changing are far less grave. Deutschman, however, also talks about the program being run by Dean Ornish, professor at the University of California Medical School. By bringing together patients to support and challenge one another through the difficult business of changing their behaviour consitently his program has a success rate of 91%.
Ornish’s program succeeds because it moves away from the three ‘F’s and instead is based on three ‘R’s:-

    Relate – all successful change is achieved through relationships

    Repeat – reversing behavioural habits created over decades requires repetition – and over an extended period

    Reframe – what eventually sustains the changes is a new way of seeing the situation or problem

It’s hard to overstate the importance of these insights to achieving successful change in organisations. I’ll discuss them further in future issues.

Accountability as a conversation

How, then, does ‘Change or die’ relate to accountability? Too often, our approach to getting things done through others depends on an approach to accountability based on Fear, Facts and Force. Whilst often implicit, the clear threat is – ‘If you don’t deliver this then there will be consequences”. This could mean a telling off, a poor appraisal, a reduced bonus or even the loss of their job.
Such threats can be a powerful short term motivation. However, they can also be destructive and rarely generate sustained changes in behaviour or performance.
Successful change comes, not from threats, but from a different approach to accountability. Real accountability is something that is given by a person not imposed upon them. I find it more helpful, and practical, to think about accountability as “What you can count on me for”.
To get to this requires a conversation in which both people’s perspectives are explored and reconciled. “Here’s what I’d like to be able to count on you for” and “Here’s what you can count on me for” need to have the same answer!
In leadership teams, each member is heavily dependent on the contribution of the others to achieve what they need. These discussions, about what they can count on each other forAn organisational process in a manufacturing firm was causing problems., need to take place not only between the leader and his subordinates – but also between all team members.

Story – Performance appraisals 

I recently met with a client who told me about an incident that made a dramatic change performance – and transformed one leader’s approach to creating accountability.

An organisational process in a manufacturing firm was causing problems. A product needed to go from the plant to a supplier for a final component to be added but was then having to come back to the plant before being shipped out. As well as being inefficient, this was causing all sorts of problems for stockholding and logistics. Delivery times were being disrupted. Customers were suffering and angry.

Following a particularly difficult client meeting Adam, the MD exploded in a leadership team meeting. “Why the **** hasn’t this been sorted out? I made it clear months ago that I wanted this dealt with. I want to see you [to Bill, the Operations Director] and James [the responsible person] in my office straight after this meeting”

The HR Director, seeing the danger, intercepted the MD before the follow-on meeting. Taking the heat out of the MD’s frustration, he reminded him that the issue had been discussed – and that it was more complex than it appeared. As a result it had never been fully worked through to a clear conclusion.

The discussion that took place was, therefore, very different to that which Bill had been fearing. Adam started by asking what Bill had understood he was to do. As Bill spoke, it emerged that he had been working on re-engineering the entire process but had hit on some obstacles.

A half hour conversation became an hour and a half. They worked through not only the original issue, but also a whole series of factors that had been underlying poor performance. By the end they had agreed on a joint approach to both the rest of the team and the group, to fundamentally rethink the processes and investment plans at the plant. Critically, Bill had taken full responsibility for delivering the proposal and for executing the agreed plan.

Create a new accountability

Almost every leader I meet feels that they are being let down by either one person or one issue. Who or what is yours?

If you want to change the situation, step away from the ‘fear, facts and force’ approach that is probably being driven and reinforced by your frustration. Instead, sit down with the person in question and explore properly what they feel they can and can’t be counted on to deliver. When you understand this properly, tell them what you want to be able to count on them for.

I guarantee you’ll create a breakthrough conversation.

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.