Posts by Jonathan Magid

Jonathan Magid helps teams and leaders work better together by uncovering and applying their natural strengths, their satisfaction in achieving great results, and their authentic desire to serve each other, their organizations, and the world.

On Accountability and Engagement: Let’s Dance!

Let's Dance

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!

Faux Excuses

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?

Enlightened Leadership

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

Team Integrity

Dancing TogetherAn 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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Jonathan Magid is General Manager, EVP at The MYND Group
He helps teams and leaders utilize their natural strengths to achieve great results
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Gaining Leadership Control: One Simple Thing


Most every busy leader longs for some magic wand that will help them simplify the monstrosity that is their life and role.  

  • Wouldn’t it be great if there was one simple thing any leader could do to stimulate a positive team culture, deepen the bonds between teammates, and create a “virtuous circle” of effective group behavior?
  • What if that one simple thing took almost no time and cost absolutely nothing?
  • Wouldn’t it be completely amazing if this one simple thing was something that everybody, everywhere, already knows how to do?

Culture-Building Rituals

Culture: The Driving Force of Every Team

My friend John King, co-author of Tribal Leadership and a founder at CultureSync says it best: “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

You know this from experience:

When a team’s culture lines up with its goals, great results follow naturally. Get out of step, and it’s tough going for everyone.

It’s easyfun, and engaging to talk about culture. Doing something about it often seems a lot harder. Moreover, when we do take on culture-changing initiatives, they often tend to be big, complex, and… well, ineffective.

Sometimes, the best interventions are actually the simplest.

Rituals:  A Critical Culture-Building Element

Like national or societal cultures, team and organization cultures emerge not only from shared beliefs, but also from the repeated practices or rituals that express and reinforce those beliefs.

Companies and teams often create rituals organically and unconsciously. Think of a routine performance management practice as an example.

The people, teams, and systems that create these rituals often don’t even recognize the powerful impact these have on the organization-wide culture.

These unconsciously-created rituals aren’t necessarily bad or damaging. In fact, many are excellent. The point is that they may not be created with a specific intent, and therefore their consequences are largely unintended.

The most powerfully effective leaders create rituals consciously.

[Kristin Arnold’s Extraordinary Team blog covers one here.]


A Good Example:

So, what is one amazingly simple ritual that any team can put in place and that has a specific, positive, and predictable outcome?  

Start every team meeting with recognition. Just take 3 to 5 minutes at the beginning of each group session and have members of your team thank and recognize others for their shared work.


The Benefits of a Simple, Consistent Recognition Ritual

I recently worked for a large financial services company where this practice was widespread. Nearly every meeting at this company began with a few minutes during which people simply said “thank you” to a teammate (or two, three, or even more). Sometimes these thanks were given for small gestures and sometimes for heroic efforts.

People thanked and recognized each other not just for what they did, but also for how they did it.

More importantly, they did this consistently, day-in and day-out. The ritual made it real, an integral part of the way we did things.

I’ve taken this practice to a new organization and started it with a cross-functional team.

  • The practice is simple
  • It costs nothing
  • It fosters a team culture in which people experience both being valued and valuing the effort and bearing of others

And in just a few short weeks, it’s spreading on its own.

When you first start this practice, it might feel a bit like a middle-school dance: you might have some uncomfortable silence during which people wait for someone else to go first. This is your opportunity to jump in and just thank someone. The only secret here is to be authentic  and specific as Steven Demaio wrote about in this HBR blog in 2009, and then to invite others to share.

It’s a good practice to keep a running list of things to recognize people for so you won’t forget between gatherings.

On Thanks and Thanksgiving

It won’t be long before teammates jump at the chance to thank others for their efforts. Other teammates will be drawn naturally to participate – not only as “recognizers,” but also in an effort to be recognized.

This is the key to the virtuous circle.

People want to give thanks, and they also want to do the kinds of things that will gain them the authentic thanks of their teammates. Good feelings beget good actions.

Formal recognition programs are useful and important. Great leaders have always understood that while there’s an important place for formal recognition, frequent, authentic thanks are essential to effective teamwork.

Make recognition a regular part of all your meetings and you too will see the power of this simple, no-cost ritual.

What culture-building rituals are in place where you work? How are you using them? What are one or two positive rituals you’d like to see take hold in other organizations? Most important, who can you call right now to say, “thank you?”

Jonathan Magid is Training & Organizational Development at Lennox International
He helps with Change Leadership, Executive Development, and Organization Design
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