Accountability and Care - An Unlikely Coupling
By Mark Raymond
At my first coaching session with a client recently, we discussed what he was wanting to achieve from the coaching. He talked about how difficult it was to get some members of his team to perform at the required level and the frustration and additional time to correct work that this was causing him. He hadn’t at that stage shared his concern with his team, other than dropping hints of his annoyance. Mistakes that he once might have accepted were causing him more irritation and making him miss the many positive contributions his team were making. The flow on effect was that his team was sensing his irritation and not feeling appreciated. He cared deeply about his team, which was causing him to feel conflicted about how to hold them to account.
It became apparent that he wasn’t just frustrated with his team, he was frustrated with himself. He had been in this situation before.
His story is a familiar one. Many leaders find it difficult to instil a culture of accountability and care. Both are critical for team success and engagement.
Accountability and care might seem like an odd coupling, but there is a growing desire in organisations to genuinely care for people (even more so in the pandemic) and to also respectfully hold people to account for their performance.
How can you build a culture where you have both care and accountability?
The answer lies in the world’s most overlooked and important aspect of organisations and leadership.
Organisations, and teams, at their essence, are comprised of people who make and deliver promises through conversations (which includes email, text etc).
Let’s take a common example. When you order a takeaway coffee, you are involved in an exchange of value – money (which the café values) for a coffee (which you value). In the making payment there is a promise that your coffee will be provided for you and when you drink your coffee you judge if the taste of the coffee is consistent with what you have asked for, as well as other things that you might consider important e.g. was the barista friendly etc When one of your team members agrees to do a task, you are also involved in an exchange – salary and support from you in exchange for successful completion of various tasks. These exchanges are promises. These exchanges happen thousands of times a day in your organisation – sometimes they go well and other times they don’t.
In my experience, most people in organisations are committed to doing their job well and focus on the task that has to be done, the report that has to be written, the piece of machinery that needs to be fixed. Often this goes well, and it is a great feeling to work on that project or task when you nail it – to meet or exceed the expectations of those who are doing it for. However, this is not always the case, and issues related to misunderstandings and quality of work delivered do not lie solely with the person who has been working on the task.
Most of the issues lie in the communication between people in the initiation of the work – when someone asks someone else to get something done. A lack of clarity about what will constitute satisfactory completion of the work, often result in expectations not being met, and promises being broken. The consequent experience of frustration, inter-personal tension, negative moods and damage to workplace relationships stems from the habitual ineffective communication process that has developed as the norm in the organisation.
It is not just in getting work or tasks done that can result in miscoordination and tensions, there are often unspoken expectations that people have related to other needs e.g. development, flexible working, autonomy, and other forms of support.
Bob Anderson, in the book Mastering Leadership, expressed it this way:
"When we step into positions of leadership, we make a whole set of promises we may not know we are making. The promises are profound and come in the form of high, often unspoken expectations. Understanding, managing and living up to these promises defines our leadership."
I would go one step further – organisations and governments survive or die based on whether people believe that they will deliver on their promises.
If a key part of your work as a team member, coach or leader of a team is to make and manage promises, how can you make promises that others value and manage them effectively?
In my experience, improving the quality of conversations to make and manage valuable promises is key building a culture of accountability, care and mutual trust.
In the case of my client above, he became skilful in four key conversations to make and manage promises with this team. These are:
conversations for clarity, to ensure shared understanding of the situation, the concerns, issues, expectations. Too often this is skipped over which often results actions that don’t address the underlying problem or concerns;
conversations for negotiation, in which there is an open space to allow for alternative perspectives on how something can be done, when it can be done, and who is best placed to do it are explored, resulting in a promise; Too often people take on things because they feel that saying yes is the only response, resulting promises being broken, burnout, or both. This happens when people take on work from clients and also inside their organisation.
conversations for delivery and fulfilment, in which the person who has committed to do the task conveys updates, changes or surprises, and then communicates that they have completed the task; too often this there is no communication, even when the person doing the task discovers issues or surprises that were not apparent when committing to do the work, resulting in missed opportunities for improved solutions and ideas.
conversations for accountability, where there are either explicit expressions of appreciation or constructive expressions of dissatisfaction. Too often this is missed completely, and people are the none the wiser if their work hit the mark or not. Worse, they often feel under-appreciated or disrespected.
In his successful application of these four conversations my client listened to his team about what they needed and they did the same. It was a genuine two-way exchange. In the process he demonstrated care for his team and also an expectation of fulfilment of promises they were making to him.
As a result, he got to spend Saturdays with his kids as better conversations with his team resulted in him needing to do less. He also experienced less stress and was relieved to be able to be more direct with this team. His team felt more appreciated and trusted and also saved time from less guess-work. They also appreciated his candour. He proved for himself that you can have both accountability and care in a team.
** If this year is throwing up challenges, there are tools and skills that can help - to save you time, reduce stress and produce results. You can contact Mark at 0409 527 729 or email@example.com. His website is www.openroadconsulting.com.au