I remember the first time I did CPR on a real human being.
I was terrified. For a moment, I forgot how.
I had all this training. I had even trained others. I was even a freshly minted EMT. And I was about ready to soil my pants, terrified that I might do more harm than good.
And then I remembered back to something that one of my trainers told me. It’s gruesome, but it’s true.
“If you’re to the point where you have to do CPR on someone, don’t worry about doing any harm. They’re already dead. It can only get better from here.”
Now, is this some intense analogy by which I’m suggesting that some of your employees are dead to the world and need resuscitation by whatever means necessary?
That’s precisely what it is.
The worst part is often times many of us are nervous about getting our hands dirty with accountability for fear of doing more harm than good.
I’ll say something similar to what my CPR instructor said: You can’t do damage to someone who is already dead to the world. And that’s exactly what some of your employees in need of accountability are.
What I Mean By Accountability
Accountability is relatively simple and consists of three parts. First, the type of accountability we’re talking about is necessary because of the commitments made between individuals in a group to each other. It is inherently social. The group succeeds because individuals keep their commitments.
Second, accountability is an opportunity for an employee to gain genuine feedback about their performance – its completeness, fitness, and match to the job called for and agreed upon.
Third, accountability is an opportunity to retain, gain, or lose something of importance to the employee. Good performance may simply see a retention of the same responsibility, or it may see an increase in authority for a given project. By contrast, failure to perform will see the employee lose something: responsibility for a favorite charge, the freedom to move on to a new task, etc.
For me, success is expected and so accountability is meant to be a celebration of success. Those things done well we learn from and apply more broadly to foster greater success.
It is when performance is not good that the penalty side of accountability comes into play, and that opens a whole other discussion.
The Common Attitude to Accountability
Occasionally, I get resistance against calling people to task in a public forum.
Age old wisdom says you must discipline in private or risk alienating your employee.
“Praise in public. Discipline in private.”
Praise in public? Why yes, nearly always.
Discipline in private? Not so fast.
If you have a true discipline problem – i.e. someone acting out of line, breaking rules, etc. – then yes, by all means, discipline in private.
But accountability and discipline aren’t the same thing. If you have an accountability issue, you take care of it in the group.
Why? Three simple reasons.
- In accountability, the group member made the commitment to the whole group in public and is accountable to the whole group, not any one person. One person may speak, but accountability is dealt with by the group.
- It often takes the whole group to solve the problem, suggesting alternative plans the group member can follow to success.
- If the group member is removed from the task, the whole group must immediately step in as appropriate to cover the task.
If you have an accountability problem and fail to deal with it publically, in the group, you’re doing possibly irreparable damage. First, you’re wasting your most valuable solution resource, your group, that may be able to help your group member. Second, you’re sending the message to your group that you don’t take accountability and their role in it seriously.
And then there are those employees who need resuscitation at any cost. Those disengaged wonders who aren’t even in touch with reality. Let’s take a look at the difference between the engaged and the disengaged.
Honest Efforts Deserve Simple Accountability
Business revolves around keeping commitments, does it not? Business is an endeavor of you and I making promises to the group that we will deliver something by a time to a certain positive effect for the group and the organization over all. It is the keeping of commitments, really, that makes all aspects of business happen.
In business today, there are thousands of reasons why sometimes even the best plans and the best efforts don’t lead to success. Sometimes team members just need a little more time or to try a little harder, and sometimes a reboot in approach is required. You can easily come up with a list as long or longer than mine as to why this happens.
But when a team member is engaged, there are three points that stand out. First, they fully understood the task they committed to, and that understanding did not waiver from commitment to deadline. They owned the task completely. They owned failure to achieve. They made no excuses for failure.
Second, the group member clearly tried. They made their best effort. They attacked the problem. If they weren’t sure about something or simply needed an extra hand, they asked for help. They literally did everything they could do in order to attempt to make a solution happen.
Third, they failed. They didn’t make it. They came up short.
In this case, any accountability to be handed out is matter-of-fact. More than likely the group member is made to finish the task. Having the team involved here is valuable because often the best suggestions for success come from the team.
Everything Else Deserves Trial By Peers
When a team member is disengaged, three points also stand out, but they are radically different from those in the previous section.
First, all too often I find that people understand tasks they commit to far better when they make the commitment than when the deadline comes around. When the task is due, suddenly they claim that they were “never clear in the first place” (and couldn’t find clarity along the way?). In other words, their story changes. Additionally, they never truly owned the task as their own. This is commonly expressed as “I never got the support I needed.”
Second, the group member did not clearly try. There is no evidence that they made their best effort or that they attacked the problem. This is often experienced as a lack of engagement by the team member with other staff regarding the task at hand, as well as the group member defending their lack of progress with what are clearly basic questions and issues about the task. My favorite bad behavior here is for the group member to blame the group or various others for the task not being done.
Third and finally – no surprise – they failed. They didn’t make it. They came up short.
Re-read this section.
There is nothing similar between the behavior listed here and the behavior in the section where I’m recommending private discipline.
The behavior in the prior section was of hard work, ownership, and honest attempts.
The behavior here is of procrastination, changing stories, lack of engagement, and blaming others.
In fact, let me make it much stronger and more accurate in the process: The statements made and the defenses offered by a disengaged group member quite often do not match reality. It is no challenge to prove them wrong, yet they stick to their quasi-delusional story
You absolutely cannot let an employee, no matter their rank or station, get away with this sort of disruptive behavior.
Accept some harsh facts right now:
- This employee is not simply not performing, they’re checked out. They’re temporarily dead to the world. For this moment, they’re poison.
- Their ability (or lack of ability) to get away with this behavior will have a direct impact on the engagement of the rest of your team.
- When you fail to deal with them involving the team, you set a new, lower (demoralizing) standard for the rest of the team, and you lose the team as a valuable resource to bring them in line.
- You should not be afraid to deal with them harshly for fear you might lose them. You already have lost them. Your job now is to win them back.
This person is a disruption. You need to deal with them publically because you need the team’s help.
Accountability, a Public Affair
Let me be perfectly clear. The ultimate nirvana is a world in which positive, proactive leadership works all the time and gives rise to an environment which employees find naturally engaging. And furthermore, that employees naturally engage to their fullest and achieve to their utmost. It is incumbent on every leader to strive for this environment first and foremost.
It is also incumbent on every leader to live in the real world. And that means the need, regularly, for accountability.
Accountability and discipline are not the same thing. Accountability, based on a public commitment between peers, is a public affair.