Accountability, Ownership, and COVID-19

The focus of my life’s work and passion is authentic leadership. At the foundation of authenticity lies ownership and personal accountability. In part, this means the ability to distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t and putting energy into that which you can influence. I am aware that COVID-19 is causing concern and fear. I recently read that, despite all that is being done, 50,000 people still die on this continent every year from the flu. As much effort that is going on to try to contain this thing, let’s keep things in perspective. A trickle of fear in the brain can eventually turn into a trough that everything flows into.

The truth is that our health is constantly threatened by external toxins and “invaders” such as viruses and bacteria. We have little control over what is circulating in the air around us, but most of us have the ability to influence our immune system – how the body responds to these toxins.

Personal accountability means taking full responsibility for what we can control and letting go of what we can’t control. In the midst of all the unknowns in the current world narrative about this disease not enough emphasis is being placed on what we can control – our own response to the disease. Let’s not get so stressed about this that we create a self-fulfilling prophesy of a compromised immune system.

While much lies outside the sphere of influence in this impending endemic, here are three things we can all be accountable for:

1)    Get as much knowledge about what is happening as we can – from trusted sources.

2)    Learn as much about your immune system as you do about the disease. And put your energy into what you can impact – bolstering your well-being.

3)    Wash your hands.

THE UNTAPPED POWER OF EMPOWERMENT

After a recent speaking engagement, I went back to my Best Western hotel room in St. Albert, Alberta. On the coffee table I found this note with a little gift bag containing a bottle of water and a candy bar.

Since receiving this inspiring little note of kindness, I have used it to illustrate leadership at its finest as it demonstrates that leadership has nothing to do with a title. Leadership instead, is about inspiring and influencing action from the people around you. It’s about PRESENCE, not position. After receiving this bit of acknowledgement, I’ve been intentional about keeping my hotel rooms cleaner. Not for the prize but for the pride.
While this is leadership about inspiration and influence, it’s also a story about empowerment. Someone empowered Jen and Grace to give this kind of recognition to a customer, and these two ladies also empowered themselves to step up to good leadership.
Empowerment is about removing barriers, creating space, and providing the support, encouragement, and tools for people to be the best version of themselves. But empowerment isn’t just about the manager letting go of some control. Empowerment, building a culture of trust, also requires the employee to choose service over self-interest. Believing that you can do just what you want and get all that you ask for is confusing empowerment with entitlement. Under the guise of empowerment, I’ve heard people ask for such things as freedom to come and go as they wish, increased salary, a risk-free environment, and no consequences for choices made.
Just because empowerment might mean working without being micro-managed, being trusted to make decisions, or having freedom to take some risks, empowerment doesn’t mean that you are going to get all you ask for, nor can you expect to be protected from being unhappy.
Empowerment is a partnership. It’s a relationship of trust. It’s a commitment to a dialogue with each party taking ownership. It’s not an act of concession. If a manager has the courage to hold an employee accountable for the agreements they made, don’t mistake this for  maltreatment.
Three simple ways to build an empowered relationship:
1)    Work with your employees within a solid accountability and delegation framework. Be sure there is clarity among all parties regarding expectations, parameters, agreements, needs for support, and consequences. Remember two things: Ambiguity breeds mediocrity and a request is not an agreement.
2)    Be intentional about building leadership capacity around you. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” You give a person a fish when you delegate through giving commands without a why, a sense of purpose or understanding the work from a larger context. It’s like saying, “go do this, and when you’re done come back and I’ll give you something else to do.” Then you become a seagull manager, when you flap around and crap on people for not doing it “right.” Empowerment implies starting small and gradually building on larger and larger expectations as trust is built and capacity is acquired.
3)    Take ownership. High involvement and high collaboration are key to empowerment. Workers will simply perform best when they have influence over their workplace and act as owners. While empowerment does imply the willingness to trust and let go of some control, ownership on the part of the employee is also required to fully grasp the task they are empowered to do. Ownership is the willingness to choose 100% responsibility. Ownership is about deciding, once and for all, that all blame is a waste of time. Ownership is about ensuring results rather than merely putting in a “good effort.”
Empowerment isn’t a leadership fad or flavour of the month. Empowerment is an approach to life. As a shared responsibility, empowerment builds leaders, takes pressure off of managers, delivers results that matter, and helps shape organizations that are worthwhile places to work.
What are your experiences with empowerment? I’d love to hear from you.

Achieving Engagement From Productivity

I’m concerned about the focus these days on employee engagement as if it were some kind of “special thing” to be pursued outside the usual day-to-day operations of a workplace. Engagement isn’t a goal to be sought. Rather, it’s an outcome of good leadership. The goal should be a well-run organization. The best run organizations have engaged employees, not because they are necessarily pursuing “an engaged workforce,” but because they are committed to a well-run organization. If you keep your eyes on the right priorities – on the right prize – engagement will naturally follow.

An adaptation of Gallup’s Q12 Index (https://q12.gallup.com/) provides a suggested checklist for leaders. If you sincerely pursue these endeavors toward a well-run organization, employee engagement will follow. In other words, these behaviors can assist the leader to do a much better job.

Don’t try to accomplish this massive list all at once. Start with getting a read on how your employees might perceive your leadership and begin to take action in any of these areas. Action on any one item on the checklist below will result in a better, well-run, engaged organization.

  • Are you doing everything you can to clarify the kind of employee you need on your team? Are you clearly assessing the kind of skills and attitude required of an employee before you hire them, so that in the hiring process you get the right kind of people on the bus? While you may refine behaviors, don’t count on changing people’s fundamental values.
  • Are you explaining to your people exactly what you expect from them, both in terms of operational results and the kind of behaviors you need to see demonstrated to support your values?
  • Are you doing everything you can to give them the skills, tools, resources, and capabilities to succeed at their job?
  • Have you linked your expectations with the purpose of your organization so they feel their contribution is valued?
  • Have you assessed their strengths so they are doing what they do best every day?
  • Are you getting out of your office at least every week and catching them doing their job well? Are you recognizing and celebrating success?
  • Do you genuinely care about them as people? Have you listened to what matters to them, what they value, and how you can best support them to use their job to achieve their personal goals?
  • Are you encouraging your employees to grow, learn, and develop themselves? When was the last time you recommended a good book for them to read?
  • Do you allow genuine input and collaboration from your team so their opinions actually matter? While you can’t possibly make every decision by consensus, do you explain – and demonstrate – that their input on as many decisions as possible will be taken seriously?
  • Do you set high standards and hold people to account to those standards? “Everyone knows who is and who is not performing, and they are looking to you, as the boss, to see what you are going to do about it.” (Collin Powell)
  • Are you encouraging the development of good friendships at work?
  • Are you openly talking with people about their progress toward the achievement of both personal and organizational goals – so there are no surprises if/when you do an annual review?
  • Are you bringing humility to your leadership by being honest, vulnerable, and teachable?
  • Are you making it safe for people to risk making mistakes, while ensuring that they learn from these mistakes?
  • Are you creating a culture of ownership, so that employees are encouraged, and held accountable to create conditions for success on their own rather than depending solely on you, the boss, to deliver this?

Moving into a position of leadership does not give you more power. What it gives you is more accountability. Leading a well-run organization takes time, patience, and a clear intention. Set a goal for a productive workplace and employee engagement will follow.

Employee Engagement: Is it Really The Boss’s Responsibility?

I grew up in a day and age well before “employee engagement”. I had five different jobs before I finished my university education: I worked on farms and ranches, survey crews, a cement company, a geriatrics unit in a psychiatric hospital, and as a janitor. I learned a lot in those jobs. I learned the value of education, to value people who were skilled at a trade, and the value of hard work.

I remember when, after pouring concrete for ten straight hours, the foreman over heard me complaining about how much I hated the work. He took me aside and said, “Son, we don’t have complainers on this crew. They call this thing work because you get paid to work. You don’t get paid to sit around. If you want to sit around, stay at home and don’t get paid. We pay you well to work, but we don’t pay you to complain. Do that on your own time.”

If I would have talked my bosses in those days about “employee engagement,” I believe they would have thought I had beans for brains. I can picture the foreman on the concrete crew saying, “My work is to get the job done; not to motivate you.”

I know we have supposedly come a long way and are now purportedly smarter in how we manage people, and allegedly are more skilled in the practice of leadership. While everyone agrees than an engaged workforce is beneficial, all of the insights and leadership efforts haven’t moved the dial much on getting them there. In all our efforts to create an engaging environment in our workplaces, I’ve never seen more entitlement.

Like children, the more people do for us, the more we expect. When I was a family counselor, I noticed an intriguing phenomenon: the children in a family that are the angriest at their parents are often the children who have been given the most.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s wonderful to learn to communicate with our staff and create an engaging, inspiring work environment. There is lot of research that says happier, more engaged employees are more productive.

Here are five responsibilities of a boss that will help engage employees:

  • Help create a clear vision. People largely change for one two reasons: inspiration or desperation. Great leaders create a powerful why, a clear and compelling shared purpose or cause that inspires.
  • Hire the right people. (I know, many of you had no choice over the employees that work on your teams; you are already behind the eight ball).
  • Be clear about what is expected. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. You need to provide clarity as to the operational accountabilities as well as the kind of attitude that is needed to do the job, and build a link between each employee’s contribution to the why.
  • Support your team with a servant mind-set. Service leadership doesn’t mean pleasing leadership. Service leadership means understanding what supports are required for your employees to get their job done, and that you have their back to do whatever you can to give them the resources and capabilities to do what is expected. What your job isn’t, is to make them happy.
  • Hold them accountable by following through on the consequences. “Everyone on your team knows who is and who isn’t performing, and they are looking to you as the boss to do something about it.” said Colin Powell, the Former United States National Security Advisor. There are consequences to actions, both negative and positive. You don’t build a great place to work when you have low standards or when you let people off the hook. People need to see courage in their leaders, not coddling.

There is, no doubt, a need for caring in the workplace. We absolutely have to support and encourage people and create a place where they can feel safe to be honest and who they are. But let’s be careful because too much support and not enough demands can breed a culture of complaint and entitlement.

What I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that it’s the boss’s responsibility to get an employee engaged. If you can, that’s great. And if you can’t, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s not your responsibility. Either people want to get their heart into the game or they don’t. You can still be a great leader even if you don’t get everyone on board. Relax and enjoy leading. Who knows? Maybe we’d be better off if bosses got back to what their ultimate job is: to make sure the job gets done and gets done well.

Stop Evaluating People and Start Holding Them Accountable

In recent months, smart companies are finally seeing the futility of the old, outdated rule-based, bureaucratic “evaluation systems” of performance management. Many organizations I work with are abolishing their “rank and yank” systems that assign employees a performance score relative to their peers, while punishing or firing those with low grades. Other organizations are wisely rethinking their practices. Whether you agree or disagree with UCLA researcher Samuel Culbert’s assessment that performance reviews are “a curse on corporate America,” it’s nonetheless clear that performance reviews and evaluations are finally losing their appeal.

Why Performance Management Fails

First, the world has changed. Today’s employees want open communication and collaboration with their peers and with their bosses. They want partnerships, not parents. Today’s employees are also far more apt to want to know more immediately how they are doing and if they are meeting expectations and heading in the right direction. The world isn’t on an annual cycle any more for anything.

Second, being evaluated is demeaning. It’s based on an outdated parental, parent/child model of supervision that is founded on the belief that because a person is given a title they have authority over people. What right does anyone have to evaluate another person? No wonder performance reviews breed all kinds of unnecessary fear, resentment, and resistance. Leadership today is about service, not submission, supervision, and self-centeredness.

Third, if organizations want to develop highly engaged, contributing performers, managers must be equipped to coach and empower them. Today’s workers don’t see their managers as experts in specific subject areas the way their predecessors did. After all, the information they think they need is readily available to them online. Instead, they look to their managers for coaching and mentorship and find purpose through learning, contributing, and growing on the job.

The truth is that employees don’t need annual performance reviews to know how they stack up against their peers. Companies need to stop merely managing performance and start actually developing it.

The Alternative: Accountability Agreements

Instead of evaluating people, start holding them accountable. Here’s how:

Step 1. Build trust. Accountability without trust is compliance. Make the connection. Be trustworthy. Keep your promises. Be accountable. Genuinely invest in people lives. Be interested in what matters to them, what motivates them, and how you can support them to grow. People need to feel safe so they can be honest without fear of punishment. The key is not just walking around; it is opening up, paying attention, and being in touch. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Step 2. Engage. Accountability without passion is drudgery. Do all you can to help and coach your employees to find their unique abilities, passion, and goals and how work fits into the context of their life. Be sure you have done everything you can to help them find a fit. Fit people; don’t fix people. Stay away from evaluating people and focus on how to support each other to grow and achieve clearly defined success.

Step 3. Clarify Expectations. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. People need to be clear about what is expected and how success is defined. Clarify operational (competency) expectations, as well as describing in behavioral terms the kind attitude that is required and what results are promised. Before you make an agreement, be sure the willingness, the resources, and the capabilities are in place.

Step 4. Clarify Agreements. A request is not an agreement. If you want to hold someone accountable, you must get their full 100% agreement. If you don’t get an agreement to a required request, then go to Step 6.

Step 5. Clarify Support Requirements. To be committed and engaged, people need to feel that they can talk openly about the support they require to achieve their accountabilities. They need to feel that you are committed to do all you can to help them find the resources and capabilities to do their job and grow in the process. What support is needed? Your employee’s negotiated support requirements will be your accountability to them. The support requirements of your employees will be their accountabilities to you.

Step 6. Clarify Consequences. With no consequences there will be no accountabilities. Always start with positive consequences (motivators). Motivators are the internal or external results of delivering on your accountabilities. Motivators are meant to inspire you to achieve your accountabilities. If these don’t get the job done, then go to negative consequences.

Step 7. Follow up. Follow up means a clear understanding of a plan for follow-through, including how often you need to meet and with whom to ensure that you hold yourself and each other accountable for honoring the promises you have made to each other.

Is Your Boss A Bully? Or Just A Poor Communicator?

In recent months the topic of bullying has surfaced in my leadership development programs. Although I haven’t thoroughly researched the topic, my observation is that there is an increase in abusive and bullying behavior in the workplace. Perhaps it is related to the economy, increased stress at work, or maybe people are getting more courageous, bringing it to the forefront and are no longer willing to be abused. Even if you are not experiencing bullying, I hope the following will help you to communicate in any of your relationships.

A coaching client shared a recent experience with her boss that went something like this:
“My boss asked me to come to her office. As soon as I sat down she laid into me about how unproductive I was, how my performance had slipped drastically in the past six months, and how I needed to step up my performance or in my next review she would start to document my work with ratings that would put my future career in jeopardy.”
While this behavior is obviously indicative of a controlling, bullying person, how do you determine if this is a bully or a boss that doesn’t handle stress well and is a bad communicator?
Following is a process that I suggest you can use to find out.
Step 1. Don’t communicate when you are in a high emotional state. As I learned from my colleague and friend, Valerie Cade, an expert in workplace bullying, “to be honorable, you have to meet dishonor with honor.” Getting angry or defensive in response to destructive communication is only throwing fuel on an already damaging fire. If you are hurt, angry, or in any way upset by this kind of feedback (and who wouldn’t be), take a few more moments to listen, then give yourself permission to say something like, “Thank you for the feedback. I want to get to the bottom of this, and in order to do so I need to step away and get some perspective. Let’s come back when we can problem solve this rationally and strategically.” Then politely excuse yourself.
Step 2. Get support from a confidant. Allies are trusted friends, colleagues, or coaches who provide perspective, wisdom, encouragement, support, and honesty. It is vital, in the work of leadership, to know we aren’t alone. The most important kind of allies are confidants: people in your life who create a safe space to be who you are, who will listen to your truth and will, in turn, tell you the truth and help hold you accountable. Confidants ask questions like, “What’s going on? What can be learned from the mistakes and failures? Can you learn something for the future? What are your options?”
Step 3. Once you let go of the emotional reaction, schedule a time to meet with your boss to problem solve a solution that responds to their concerns. When you meet next, bring a notepad and ask only one question, “What do you need from me to ensure that I get my performance right, so that you will never again accuse me of these things. I want to understand exactly what I need to do to turn this around.” Then sit and listen and make notes. You don’t have to agree or disagree. The goal is to understand what your boss is asking for. If they need more time to clarify this on their own, then of course, give them the time to do so.
Step 4. If your boss starts to attack you, stop and ask them to clarify what behaviors they are expecting. Reiterate that you are here to solve the problem, to be a part of the solution moving forward, not the problem going backwards. In any of these steps, do not allow yourself to be put into a situation where you are being criticized, demeaned, or bullied. Take charge of the conversation to shift it from criticism to identification of solutions or requests.
Step 5. Once you hear your boss out and list the behaviors they are asking you to change, then negotiate an agreement between you. Conflict comes from unmet needs. You don’t resolve conflict with more conflict. You resolve conflict by getting to the root of the problem. The negotiation process may take a few meetings. Give yourself and your boss the time and the space to carefully clarify the expectations, agreements, and needs for support from each other.
Step 6. Assess Intent. This is the step where the rubber hits the road, where you assess if your boss is a bully. Bullies have no intent to work toward a solution. Bullies have themselves been bullied. They have no interest in problem solving, in helping you find a solution, and in helping you succeed. They only have interest in criticizing, controlling, and manipulating with the intent to bully. You can assess their intent by giving them (with an open mind and a spirit of generosity) a few chances to move toward a solution. Give them the benefit of the doubt in the first meeting. Maybe they are just stressed and are communicating poorly. But if after a few tries they still have no interest in moving toward a solution and helping you understand and change your actions, take the appropriate action toward taking care of yourself. If they are, in fact, a bully, here are a few options to consider:
a.    Get support from a trusted outsider – either an HR manager inside your organization or an outsider who specializes in bullying. Don’t ever attempt to deal with a bully who has positional authority over you on your own.
b.    Take full responsibility for your willingness to work on a solution, and be honest about what you are up against.
c.     You may have to consider leaving your organization. Be sure you have  covered all your bases, documented all of your interactions and done everything possible on your end to resolve the issue.
Please note that these are very general points. If you need support with any of these steps, contact our office for a confidential and complimentary half hour consultation, and we’ll help you find the resources and support that you need.