Accountability Begins with a Whisper

I often hear owners/managers say:

  1. “There are no good people out there to hire.”
  2. “My people don’t care as much as I do.”
  3. “My people won’t do what they’re told.”

People problems are among the top three biggest complaints among managers next to money and time. I’ve heard the same frustrations for fifteen years, and while understandable, each one is a misstatement of the problem in a way that ensures it never changes. It doesn’t have to be this way. At the end of this article, you’ll have a tool to make a difference.

How do you hire and train engaged, responsible people who manage themselves and care as much you? The solution is to look at those three fingers pointing back at you, because inevitably people problems start with managers. People need training and just the right amount of pressure to become great. They don’t usually show up on their first day like that. What if a manager’s responsibility is to help a person find their personal reason to care about their job as much as an owner would?

What are the consequences when an employee doesn’t do what they’re told? Here are the answers I usually hear:

  1. “I yell at them” or “I give them a stern talking to.” (Because fear is a great motivator, isn’t it?)
  2. “They get a retraining.” (As if their unfamiliarity with some policy or procedure was actually the issue)
  3. “They get written up.” (A hollow, impersonal HR gesture whose sole purpose is to create a legal paper trail to fight unemployment and/or wrongful termination claims and doesn’t serve the employee at all save reminding them of their grade school principal’s office.)

Having great people requires skill. If you don’t have great people, you lack management skill. Try this on. That’s responsibility. If you have the power to hire and fire, it’s ultimately on you. As soon as you frame it this way, people problems can change, but not until then. Most managers are either unwilling or unable to do the following things that correlate with and eliminate the three frustrations above:

  1. Hire people who are coachable and are a values/culture fit for the company.
  2. Inspire people to care about their job, the company, and the customers for their own personal reasons first.
  3. Hold people accountable and train them so they self-manage and don’t require supervision.

In this article, I’ll focus on the third skill because it’s the most important one to eliminate people problems. It’s why I created the model and course called The Accountability Path. The Accountability Path is a way of slowly but surely dialing up the pressure on someone to change in a way that maximizes their ability to own the change for themselves. It supports a manager to find the right words, right energy, and right structure for conversations so they’re neither too hard nor too soft at any given time. The Accountability Path has five steps, and they are:

  1. The Notice
  2. The Nudge
  3. The Talk
  4. The Carefrontation
  5. The Line

We all default to either too soft or too hard, and it can take years to find a healthy balance. The Accountability Path shortens the learning process dramatically so you can eliminate people problems. Recently, in a rare display of powerful public accountability, Senator Elizabeth Warren grilled the CEO of Wells Fargo. It’s eight minutes of rare, heroic accountability that brought tears to my eyes. Watch the video here.

In Clear and Open terms, Senator Warren implements a version of the final step of the Accountability Path: The Line. And she does so beautifully. When her question isn’t answered, she interrupts and re-asks it, naming the fact that Stumpf didn’t answer it. When Stumpf tries to divert by going back to content already addressed, she stops him with “We’ve been through this” and re-asks her question. My favorite part is how she points out that he merely says, “I am accountable,” but takes no actions to hold himself as such. This is the status quo of responsibility in our world and it’s the cause of just about every societal ill we have.

There’s no question she’s leading. The conversation is going where she wants it to, because she has the facts and is committed to reality, whether Stumpf is willing to admit those facts or continue to make excuses and deny reality. While you can tell she’s outraged, she’s doesn’t directly express her upset and keeps the conversation professional, with the possible exception of calling his leadership “gutless.” You can tell she’s using careful notes to help her to go right up to the line, in order to make her case as strong as possible.

If the idea of grilling one of your employees like this makes you bristle, that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t want to do this and you won’t, because this is a public hearing, not an employee development meeting. When you use the Accountability Path, you rarely need to go anywhere near this place. But you do need to be so committed to truth that you’re willing to get this uncomfortable. For most people are not. And that’s the problem that paradoxically leads you to these extremely uncomfortable situations. What you resist, persists, as is said.

People Problems Begin With You

The most common mistake managers make is not naming the little things that don’t feel right early on. They avoid the small discomforts that then add up, the pressure builds, and then one day the manager explodes and the employee feels ambushed. The employee never had a chance to change, and now they’re on the defensive, unable to take in the feedback. Even just one instance of this can cause irreparable damage and create an “us vs. them” dynamic that you may never undo–because you committed a kind of betrayal of trust. The fix? Sweat the small stuff.

Naming the little things begins with the barest whisper of accountability, and I call it “The Notice.” For example:

  • “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in a bit later than usual.”
  • “I noticed you seemed a little frustrated at the marketing meeting.”
  • “I notice there’s a lot on your desk.”

You share what you notice in order to see what your employee does with it. Maybe your noticing helps them notice. You want them to take action on their own without needing you to tell them what to do. If they don’t hear you, you notice out loud a few more times before dialing up the heat and moving further down the path. But at first, you’re not using any of your authority at all. So it might go like this:

  1. Manager: “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in a bit later than usual.”
  2. Employee: “Yeah, there’s been some construction on the highway.”
  3. Manager: [registers this is an excuse, but chooses not to directly confront it] “I wonder if there’s a way you could handle that.”
  4. Employee: [pausing, realizing this isn’t small talk anymore] “I guess I should probably leave my house earlier as long as this construction is happening.”
  5. Manager: “Yeah, it’s a pain, but that makes sense to me. Hopefully, they’ll be done soon. See you later.”

The manager potentially communicated a lot more than what you see here. After they walk away, the employee might think to themselves:

“Hmm. Me blaming construction on my inability to get to work on time is actually irresponsible. A responsible person would wake up earlier to keep their agreement. I wonder where else in my life I make excuses and pretend I’m not as powerful as I am.”

Can you see how the effect would different than if a manager said, “You’re being irresponsible and making excuses?” But that’s not something you say at level one, that’s level five, like Senator Warren showed us. The employee has the chance to discover this for themselves, especially if the manager notices other things throughout the week that are examples of the same theme; e.g. “I noticed you didn’t make a new pot of coffee when you poured the last cup.” The lack of responsibility is likely a pattern, after all: how we do anything is usually how we do everything.

At this first level of accountability, the manager intentionally avoids any kind of conflict, excuse-naming, or any other assertion of authority. A supervisor would say “Well, you need to be on time regardless” in line three above. A manager wonders out loud and gives the employee a chance to solve the problem themselves. Here’s an easy hint on how not to be a supervisor:

Don’t ever tell anyone what they “need” to do. Ever.

The phrase is so presumptuous and tyrannical it should make you nauseous. No human being absolutely knows what any other human being needs to do. If you tell people what they “need” to do, you treat them like children and you can expect them to in turn act like it. It’s more difficult to take a moment and figure out what you can say to lead them to the conclusion you already see, but that’s the job of management. Telling people what to do is easy, but it doesn’t get anyone what they want.

After a few Notices, very often the person hears you and makes a change without you having to give any kind of directive. That’s what you want. This is empowerment. If you wait until a behavior becomes a real problem, and so have to “correct” the employee, it’s often too late because now they’re going to make the change primarily for you, because you told them to (so they’ll resent you) and under stress. This inhibits their ability to own it. That’s a recipe for people problems.

Do you enjoy being told what to do?

Nobody does. So managers wait too long to give the gentle feedback because it’s uncomfortable and they don’t know how, and then it’s too late so they “have” to tell the employee what to do. But what you’ve really done is trained the employee not to manage themselves, and not to be continually working on some aspect of their behavior. In other words, you’ve trained them to wait to be told what to do–which nobody likes. This is where people problems are born. And then you wonder why they don’t seem to care as much as you do. They don’t. You made sure of it.

Telling someone what to do is a last resort, and embodying this as a manager is part art, and part science. The science I’ve got covered in The Accountability Path. The art of it something we work on in the Clear and Open Community. I coach members how to use the Path to address their people problems so you all can do great work. You don’t have to do it alone. Why not try a risk-free month of membership to see how it fits?

But you’re not off the hook, yet! Your assignment this week is to make three notices with your people. This is your tool to eliminate people problems before the start. If you don’t manage people, try it with vendors, contractors, children, or anyone else you oversee. There are usually many opportunities to gently notice something that’s “off” in a way that gives people the opportunity to own a change. In the end, this is the most powerful way to create change, and actually the most comfortable as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment