“How do I hold my people to account”?
It is an often asked leadership question, posed usually by a leader who is frustrated that people just haven’t done what they were supposed to do, yet another deadline has slipped by, and an angry customer call is just around the corner:
Leaders deploy various tactics in order to answer that question with their teams. Increasing the number of project / work reviews, adding extra objectives, public naming and shaming, through to threats of performance management, missed promotion opportunities and potentially even dismissal. Most of these techniques are based on the ‘stick’ method of motivation, and for that reason they only change behaviour for as long as the leader puts in the extra time and effort to wield the stick – i.e. closely manage the situation and prevent the employee slipping back to their old ways – if indeed they change in the first place.
So how can we as leaders avoid getting into this continual cycle of extra leadership effort, de-motivated employees and further missed deadlines or issues with delivery?
The key is to re-think the question you ask yourself. Ask yourself instead:
“How do I help my people to feel accountable?”
Simply put, stop trying to hold people to account, and concentrate your efforts on making the employee feel accountable. The aim is to have employees who are intrinsically motivated to do what they need to do, when they need to do it – therefore they are doing it willingly, without needing the stick of constant supervision and threats.
Of course this is easier said than done. Most leaders would say they dreamed of leading a team of people who felt accountable, felt empowered and worked together as a team, with trust in each other and their leaders. Probably very few leaders have achieved this dream completely, and some have not got anywhere close.
There are three key behaviours that you can use to change your situation and progress towards that dream, behaviours that will free up your time and get you the results you need as you move from holding your people to account to helping your people feel accountable:
1. Give feedback on what you have observed from the employee until this point. The feedback should be specific to one or more examples of missed deadlines / poor work, and explain the impact that had on you (more worry, more time reviewing, more micro-management), the impact it had on the business (dissatisfied customers, delays to benefits from internal projects) and the impact it had on their team mates (resentment to covering for poor or not completed work). It should also be delivered promptly after the issue has come to light. Work hard not to make it emotive or general.
2. Listen carefully to the responses given. Look past the initial reactions of anger, resentment, denial and blaming of others, as they are synonymous with people unused to receiving feedback, and again ensure you don’t respond with any emotional or confrontational language. Ask more questions. Continue to dig deeper into each answer until you are at the point where you can see why the employee is performing as they are. This could be illness, money issues, relationship issues, lack of self-confidence, personality clashes in the team, issues with you as a leader, or any manner of other non-visible issues. Questions such as “how did you feel about that?”, “why did you feel that way?” and “how do you wish that had happened differently?” can help to dig down beneath the superficial responses to the core reasons.
3. Agree how the employee, the leader and the business can work together to fix those issues. This could be facilitated discussions between personnel, offers of counselling or a little time off to deal with out of work issues. It could be training or further development in skills and capability. Make sure that the solutions are agreed mutually, and that plans are made to carry them out. Also make sure that it is agreed that the employee will start working on their behaviours straight away and that they understand where they can seek support that can help them.
It is imperative that the employee recognises the need for change and is committed to working hard to turn things around, which should come from the trust built in the steps above. Many employees will never have been through any of the steps above with a leader before and it may take time to build the necessary level of trust, but keep repeating the above steps and eventually you should be able to deconstruct the issues and help the employee build themselves back up again.
Things probably won’t change overnight, so be prepared to work with the employee on an ongoing basis, continuing to go through the three step process. Also be prepared to make sure that the employee knows that you have their back, with no comments to other team members or managers, other than those you need to help with the support plan. Trust is key and as you build it you will get more from the three step process, building a positive, proactive circle of behaviour and trust that will in time lead to a committed employee who feels accountable.
It is fair to say that this will not always work, as some employees will not see the need to change or have the desire or wherewithal to change, in which case there is no choice but to work through the painful but essential process of performance management. Before though you assume this is the only way, work through the above process in a caring and empathetic way. Spend your efforts helping people to feel accountable, and you should be able to stop having to spend extra time and effort holding them to account.
I’d love to hear how you get on as you try this approach so please share your experiences and thoughts below.
Copyright Simon Murphy 2016