Coaching and Accountability

Coaching and Accountability
Regardless of your industry, employees at all levels must be held accountable for the job
they are being paid to do. Holding them accountable is a fine line to walk because most
managers don’t want to harm the relationship and yet the performance failure must be
addressed. This creates a double bind where managers feel they must choose between
two inadequate positions: preserving the relationship at the expense of the lost
performance or achieving the performance at the expense of a damaged relationship.
Often, managers either avoid these difficult interactions (flight) or meet them with an
armored position (fight), using blame and anger to get the issue resolved while
sidestepping the stress and vulnerability inherent in these conversations. Let’s play out
these two scenarios and find some alternatives.
The employee is asked to come into a manager’s office and explain what caused a
performance failure. During this discussion, the manager may hear a series of
explanations and/or excuses that impacted or negated the employee’s ability to perform
as required. On the other hand, the employee may simply state that he/she didn’t know,
forgot, or focused on something else as the priority. Okay, an account of the problem has
been rendered, now what? Let’s look at a fight response first.
One company president told me this is when he brings out the big guns because he is a
strong believer in accountability. Lots of yelling and threats of termination follow but no
consequences ever result. I asked him how effective he felt this method was in creating
the needed change and he reported honestly that it wasn’t. He shared his genuine
confusion and frustration that people wouldn’t do the right thing, especially after being
regularly held “accountable” through these painful discussions. With recurring
performance failures, he would repeat these discussions, simply increasing the duration
and volume of the outburst. He became the punishment for poor performance because
there was no other consequence than being with him during these tirades. This of course
negatively influenced all interactions with him. The relationships were damaged and the
problems remained – a worst-case accountability scenario.
This fight response confuses accountability with hostility. People don’t like being verbally
abused and will typically find a friend to share the experience with to receive reassurance
that the real problem wasn’t their performance failure but the inappropriate behavior of
the boss. Like the mum who yells at and threatens her misbehaving kids in the grocery
store but does nothing to stop their behavior, our boss is teaching his employees that
there are no consequences for their “misbehavior” other than enduring his tirades and so
it doesn’t matter if they “behave” or not. This threatens the emotional bank account and
leadership credibility and, over time, will deplete them both.
The more common response is flight. This happens at all levels and can take on many
guises. For example, another boss asked me to coach her VP of Sales. He brought in
lots of business but was inconsistent in getting complete and accurate information
necessary to fulfill the sale and communicating it to others. After several sessions she
asked if I thought he could be saved. I said yes but that he would need feedback on his
performance and would need progressive discipline if he wandered from the action plan
supporting his required changes. She rejected the idea that she should have to manage
the performance of someone in a VP position and eventually fired a $4 million dollar
producer for her company.
Many managers have not been trained in the skills required to do this part of their job
(surprisingly common) or they just may not think they should have to manage the work of
another adult on the job. The result: inadequate performance doesn’t get addressed.
What we permit persists. Small problems can grow in this scenario until the manager no
longer cares about the relationship and then makes a first visit to HR expecting the
employee to be terminated. No conversation, no feedback, no progressive discipline –
just out.
In both examples, there is little understanding of the function of accountability in shaping
desired workplace behavior. Fair and impartial consequences must be delivered when
necessary but these interactions should not progress into shouting matches that carry no
consequences and hurt future loyalty, performance, and retention. Genuine
accountability effectively shapes employee behaviors while maintaining positive
relationships until performance requirements are successfully met – the only resolution to
the manager’s double bind. This means that at no time should the relationship ever be
used as the punishment for performance failures. It is this relationship that the Gallup
research in First, Break All The Rules, tells us is the single most important variable in
creating a strong and successful workplace. We cannot afford to lose it to reactivity,
hostility, and blame; rather, it is the best tool we have to create excellence with our
Elements Of Accountability Discussions:
Just the facts ma’am. Clear your descriptions of the problem of any judgments,
criticism, or assumptions. Simply describe the problem behavior – what the employee did
or said – without embellishment.
Investigate. Make sure you understand the root cause of the problem. By
demonstrating genuine curiosity, you will ensure your full understanding of the problem
and the employee’s goodwill as you build a resolution that can solve the problem once
and for all.
Play your part. Remember, we owe our employees a set-up for success. If they
don’t have what they need to succeed, they can’t give us the behaviors we want. Ensure
that the expectations are clear, and that the necessary training, resources, and feedback
have been provided. If we don’t provide these elements, we can’t ethically hold people
accountable for their lack of performance.
Be consistent, fair, and dispassionate when delivering established consequences.
Don’t underline the seriousness of the consequence with emotional reactivity that moves
the focus of their attention from their performance failure to your upset. This will make it
easier for them to discount their behavior and emphasise your misbehavior with them.
Keep the attention on their performance.
5. Finally, address the problem early, when it is still small and easier to resolve.
Remember, it’s easy to justify avoiding at this stage – naturally; choosing your battles
and the timing of the interaction is important considerations. But the danger in waiting is
that it will allow the problem to become more serious, creating the potential for greater
harm for the company, the employee, and often the manager who did not address it early
on. Some early accountability in the form of feedback can help save all three from more
serious consequences.