If you are in a management or leadership position at an organization, you will repeatedly feel the pressure at times to amplify your role to help engage your teams for better performance.
It is now performance management season across much of corporate America and we’re hearing the storied refrain:
“We need to do a better job of holding people accountable!”
Engagement at Work
Holding employees accountable to assigned tasks is one thing, but making sure that they are actually engaged with the assigned endeavor is another.
Concerning employee engagement, a look back at the 2011 Blessing White Employee Engagement Report shows that fewer than one third of employees around the world – and only 31% in North America – report that they are fully engaged at work.
We also know that employees who are fully engaged express that engagement by sticking around longer, and more importantly, applying discretionary effort is key to long-term employment.
In other words, the engaged employee is apt to be a highly accountable employee.
The Corporate Leadership Council has outstanding research on this.
On Leadership and Accountability
Now, back to this “holding people accountable” bit.
When was the last time you heard an executive say this:
- “I didn’t make our numbers this quarter. In the coming months, you can expect me to communicate more clearly where we stand and what we’re really working toward.”
- “You can also expect me to ask you what tools and resources you need from me in order to accomplish your own objectives.”
- “And you can expect more frequent requests for your input so we can all make sure we’re moving in the same direction.”
But… we need to hold people accountable!
In more corporate environments than not, what we hear is some version of this:
“We need to deal with our poor performers better. We’re going to do a top-grading exercise.”
This is shortly followed by managers swallowing hard and trying to find someone to throw into that bottom-left section of the 9-box chart.
The result of all this is that people disengage all the more. And the next quarter or the next year, we’re right back where we started:
Grinding away trying to do a better job of holding people accountable.
On Productivity and Accountability
The more we push this version of holding people accountable, the more they disengage and the lower performance becomes overall. People first stop applying that discretionary effort, reducing productivity, and then they leave, increasing costs and reducing the productivity of the teams left behind.
The problem is that we’re confused: we’ve conflated accountability with blame
Often we think we’re talking about accountability, but our actions belie us: we’re really going about the business of blame and punishment. In short, we’ve succumbed to the accountability fallacy that people aren’t performing because there is something wrong with them.
Some years back I worked for several companies experiencing explosive growth. Even in the midst of a tremendous boom, many executives thumped their desks calling for “accountability” for people who weren’t exceeding expectations (expectations that in at least some cases had never even been communicated in the first place, which is a related but different post!).
What if real accountability is an act of choice and generosity?
What these executives and other less-than-enlightened leaders overlooked is that real accountability can only be chosen. No one can be “held accountable” for something they haven’t chosen in the first place.
Blame can be assigned and consequences doled out, but these aren’t the same things.
Seen in that context, the exemplary leader understands immediately that accountability and engagement dance together, and the dance only works when both partners are in step.
This is why exemplary leaders understand that the source of accountable teams is a leader who holds him or herself rigorously to account, publicly with the team. It’s how exemplary leaders demonstrate that they care less about performance reviews than about performance itself.
They live accountability by communicating relentlessly about what’s important and dedicating themselves to ensuring the people they’ve asked to do the “heavy lifting” have the tools, resources, and authority to achieve it.
How exemplary leaders really deal with poor performance
An interesting thing tends to happen with these leaders: poor performers just don’t stick around long in the teams they lead. One important reason is that teams of highly engaged employees simply don’t tolerate weak players, and they either raise those people up quickly or wash them out.
This is another sign of high-engagement teams: poor performers just aren’t there.
It’s a great leap and often a difficult one for people to accept that engagement and accountability dance together in an intricate and ultimately beautiful tango. Perhaps more difficult is the courage it takes for leaders to look in the mirror and to recognize that accountability begins with their own choice to be the most accountable of all.
Perhaps even more difficult still is the courage required of those of us who advise leaders to prompt them to take that step.
Perhaps we can start by looking in the mirror ourselves and seeing where we too have conflated accountability with blame, and performance drive with punishment. What’s the real state of engagement in our teams and organizations?
What step will you take, right now, to bring the beautiful dance of accountability and engagement to your stage?
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Image Sources: artcontemporary.co.uk, esquire.com