Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

Performance Management = Count the Hours Worked? Or the Results Produced?

I love reading The Economist magazine for its useful perspective on the world. Last week an article included a summary of the evolution of “performance management” at work.  Here it is:

  1. Before the industrial age, most people worked in their own farm or workshop and were paid for the amount they produced.
  2. When machines were developed and were more efficient than cottage-industry methods, factories emerged. Suddenly, workers were not paid for their output, but for their time – they were required to clock in and out.
  3. Today, work hours are still the measure, and employees have found ways to make it look like they are working longer hours than they really are. The article mentioned some tricks they play to maintain their image as a performer:
    • Leave a jacket on your office chair;
    • Walk around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard; and/or
    • Send emails at odd hours.

The name for this new phenomenon is “presenteeism”: being present but not productive. This is because, the article states, “managers, who are often no good at judging employees’ performance, use time in the office as a proxy”. Some take the shortcut of “judging” performance based on the hours worked rather than understanding the actual results produced. That decision can create a damaging idea of what workplace “performance” means.

Perform: The original meaning is “To provide thoroughly. To deliver completely, as promised.” That tells us performance is the fulfillment of a promise for an action or delivery of a product, service, or communication. It means a manager has to clarify which results, by whom, and by when – not to mention discussing resources, and identifying relevant key players. It requires thoughtful, productive communication, including a “performance conversation” in which the manager clarifies the results and timelines then gets an agreement – a promise from the employee – to deliver the intended result(s).

Performance is not determined by a judgment based on apparent work hours. It entails tracking promises for results and the results produced and delivered.  But managers who take that performance-judgment shortcut are also short-circuiting the work of management.

A “performance review” is more than checking a time clock or filling out a form. It looks at the promises made and/or revised, promises kept, and promises not kept. It is more objective than subjective, looking at what results each person (or team) actually produced.

It does take time and attention to manage performance in terms of results, so I see why some managers rely on their personal judgment instead. It’s sort of like leaving a jacket on their office chair or walking around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard. Looking busy will often be perceived as being productive.

Evaluating Leaders – It’s Not a Popularity Contest

My husband Jeffrey has finally submitted his paper on the “leadership of change” to an international academic journal. It has been in development for over 3 years and could alter the research approach to leadership. I hope it does – that research needs help!

Consider the way researchers evaluate the effectiveness of leadership: they do a survey. Think about that. Can we say whether someone’s leadership is effective based on the opinions of their colleagues? If we admire someone in a leadership position, or think s/he is a great person – does that mean they are a good leader? Aren’t we supposed to look at the results they produce?

Effectiveness, after all, is about producing effects, i.e., results. How about asking whether a “change leader” actually made the intended change happen? Maybe even look to see if the change was accomplished on time? And on budget, too.

Jeffrey’s paper identified three basic functions that together add up to good leadership: (1) structuring work; (2) maintaining group integration; and (3) adapting and innovating as needed. One important point he made is that those three things do not need to be done by a single individual. In other words, leadership can be a distributed phenomenon – a collection of people that together contribute to getting those three things right.

So, you might be good at setting up the structures for getting all the necessary tasks done, while Darryl in the next office is great at keeping the group working well together with good internal communication. And maybe the IT team on the third floor brings their expertise to watch the progress of the initiative and make sure that surprises are addressed in an appropriate and timely way. The three of us – two individuals and a group – make up a good leadership team.

Where do those opinion surveys fit in?  They can help us see how people think you are doing with organizing task assignments, or how Darryl is doing with group cohesion, or if the IT team is seeing all the places that need attention. Asking people what they think of the way things are going and whether they think the leaders are on top of things is useful to learn something about the culture and climate, and can also provide feedback to the leadership team on all three leadership functions.

Opinion surveys have a role to play, but not in determining the effectiveness of a leader or a group of leaders. Thinking highly of someone doesn’t mean they are effective. To know about that, we need objective measures of results and outcomes. Which means the goals have to be clear and the steps to accomplishment spelled out for all to see. And then we need to check on how things are going at regular intervals: are we behind schedule or over the budget this week? Effectiveness isn’t a personality thing. It’s about measures and status updates. Accountability starts at the top. So there.

Leadership? Or Management? What’s the Difference?

An article in The Economist (March 30th, 2019, p. 67) said, in the opening paragraph, “Everyone can think of inspiring leaders from history, but managers who think they can base their style on Nelson Mandela, or Elizabeth I, are suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

First, did the reference to Mandela and Elizabeth I tip you off that The Economist is a British magazine? More importantly, do the words “leaders” and “managers” suggest that leaders are managers? Or that managers aspire to be leaders?  It got me thinking. Which means it nudged me to take out my Etymological Dictionary on the origins of words.

Leader – One who conducts others on a journey or course of action, keeping watch from above and providing defense, protection and guidance for the action below.

Manager – One who handles, controls, or administers a journey or course of action.  Note: the word “manage” is derived from “manus”, Latin for hand, as in “handling or steering a horse”, i.e., holding the reins.

So a manager is in control and steering the action, while a leader is protecting and defending the actors. Sounds like two different roles to me. Which job would you want?

If you are a manager and want to be a leader, here’s a tip from that article: Being “competent” involves one important skill – the ability to have dialogues, or what we call Understanding Conversations. This kind of leadership “communication competence” has three important ingredients:

  1. The ability to listen and understand, sometimes called empathy.  “Team leadership requires having sufficient empathy to understand the concerns of others.”
  2. Dialogue with people ‘below’.  “Employees are more likely to be engaged with their work if they get frequent feedback from their bosses and if they are involved in setting their own goals.”
  3. The ability to course-correct.  “When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, a good leader also needs the flexibility to adjust their strategy.”  This would be done in dialogues with others, both above and below the leader.

The article made some other good points:

  • On competence and charisma: “The biggest mistake is to equate leadership entirely with charisma,” and, “Competence is more important than charisma.”
  • On competence and confidence: “People tend to assume that confident individuals are competent, when there is no actual relationship between the two qualities.”
  • Most fun quote (read it twice): “Charisma plus egomania minus competence is a dangerous formula.” (This reminded me of someone who is much in the media these days.)

The article also mentioned a book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which should be a best-seller, based on the title alone: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)”. That one should be jumping off the shelves!

You’ve Got an Improvement Project?  First, Listen!

I’ve been working with a group of people who are focusing on how to improve the “continuing care” services in a “senior living” facility.  (Note: those quote-marked phrases are intended to avoid using the term Old Folks Home).  The people in the group divide nicely into two types of people. See if you can spot them in these comments from four of them:

  1. Aaron: “We need to pay attention to whether people are getting the right kind of social activities. And whether their diet is appropriate for their medical profile.”
  2. Bonnie: “When I was over there, walking through the facility, I noticed a couple of rooms where the beds were unmade and there were holes in the sheets. This is not good quality at all!”
  3. Frank: “Let’s do a survey to find out what the residents say is working well and what they want to improve. Sort of a satisfaction survey. Then we can come up with some goals.”
  4. Elaine: “I think what’s missing is a statement of mission and vision, and a good strategic plan. Maybe those need to be created or updated.”

The meeting spun around for a while with comments like these – the group leader let everyone talk – and when some of them began to get noticeably impatient, she intervened. Thank goodness. I was thinking that people like Aaron and Bonnie were too “deep in the weeds” of details and I didn’t want to spend more time there. Others, like Elaine and Frank, were more “big-picture”, probably a better place to start.

“I’m sure your suggestions are all useful,” the group leader said. “But let’s look at how we could arrange them to get pointed in the right direction. We can’t create our Facility Improvement Project to include everything, so how do we get clear on what we want to accomplish?”

Aaron said, “I like Frank’s idea of doing the survey. That would give us something to stand on, and a way to see what’s important to the residents.”  Then Elaine admitted that a strategic plan was going to need some clear goals and said that a survey could be useful to find out what those are.  Even Bonnie agreed, leaving the “holes in the sheets” behind for now.

Frank summed up the group’s insight, saying, “It’s important that we start by listening, asking the residents what they want most. That gives us some goals to work toward. But also (a nod to Elaine), it might help us refresh the mission statement and even come up with a strategic plan – or at least an action plan.”

Aaron agreed, saying, “Listening first – hey, that’s good. I want to put social activities and healthy diet questions on the survey, though.” Everyone looked at Bonnie until she laughed and said, “I’ll write the question about bedsheets, OK?”

Lesson learned: The group leader didn’t tell us what to accomplish – she asked us how to find out what to accomplish. We learn what will improve a situation by asking the people who are most directly affected. So, don’t just make up “improvement goals” and solutions for others without granting them the gift of your listening.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

Trump Abandons a Basic Element of Good Management

The US president has reduced the White House press briefings to once a month, and those conversations could go to zero soon. An article about the Die-out of Press Briefings says Trump told his Press Secretary not to bother with briefings anymore. That’s a mistake.

I remember when my boss, in a job I held just out of college, refused to have meetings with his staff. “Meetings are a waste of time,” he said. None of us knew what he learned at the executive meetings he went to once a month, or what he knew about our internal customers in the Underwriting Department. He praised us for “knowing our jobs”, but we didn’t feel in touch with the company we worked for. There was no “bigger picture” than the stacks of things-to-do on our desks. A briefing – giving information and instructions – would have been helpful.

If US managers in corporations, non-profits, and governments gave up their weekly meetings or their regular briefing conversations, they would notice a loss of energy and interest in their team members. They would lose the most effective means of sustaining a relationship with their people, their customers, and the rest of the outside world: communication. This president will too.

Conversations can be designed to be productive and effective – we have identified four ways to do that, as you may already know. When we don’t have a dialogue with other people about the ideas and activities we want to initiate, we miss a chance to get their feedback – including their questions, ideas, and concerns. When we fail to follow up with people to let them know what is happening, and talk about what is working (and what isn’t), we lose their attention and commitment.

It’s not about giving a pep talk, though sometimes that is useful. It’s about reminding people about what we are working on and how things are going. It’s about reporting on actions taken and results produced, addressing setbacks or changes in plans, and underlining the importance of next steps to be taken. Without press briefings, we’ll just have to make up what’s happening in the White House. But we have kind of been doing that all along, right?

Organization Assessments – Is Your Workplace Working?

I have been reading about organization assessments lately. There are a LOT of tools, techniques and reasons for doing an assessment! Most of them focus on figuring out the people – their values, styles, or readiness for change, and the culture their behaviors reflect.

So I thought I would toss another kind of assessment into that basket: https://usingthefourconversations.com/overview-2.

This one doesn’t study the people. It studies the situations the people observe when they are at work. There are 56 statements of situations that commonly arise – to varying degrees – in most organizations. The assessment asks only 1 question: How often do you see each situation where you work? Never = 1, Rarely = 2, Sometimes = 3, Usually = 4, Always = 5.

Those 56 situations reveal 8 distinct types of workplace problems:

  • Lateness
  • Poor work quality
  • Difficult people
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm
  • Insufficient resources and support
  • Lack of accountability
  • Incomplete conversations

At the end of the assessment, your workplace gets a score. You will find out which of those 8 workplace problems your people are seeing on a regular basis, including the specific situations they notice. Good to know, right?

You’ll also get recommendations on how to upgrade the communication habits in your workplace to resolve those problems. And, if you use the Manager’s Subscription – https://usingthefourconversations.com/manager-subscription – you’ll get information on how to give your people the survey and how to put the results to work.

So, instead of studying what makes your people tick, maybe it makes more sense to ask them about what’s happening at work that tends to compromise their productivity and effectiveness? They will tell you. Then you can work together to implement the recommended communication upgrades. Easy peasy.

Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.

Getting Things Done. Or Not.

Did anyone ever tell you something that startled you into a new reality? Our publisher (of “The Four Conversations” book) startled me with what turned out to be a great awakening. Two recent news items reminded me of that truth.

We – my husband-coauthor Jeffrey and the publisher – were discussing possible subtitles for our book. I argued for using the phrase, “A Practical Way for Getting Things Done”. After I’d proposed it 3 times, the publisher said, ever so gently, “Laurie, not everybody is interested in getting things done.”

I remember how stunned I was. Really? There are people who don’t want to get things done? What are they doing with their lives? But since then, I’ve noticed how many people can ignore their ever-growing pile of unfinished tasks, or the things they should throw out or give away, or situations that are dangerous and need to be faced promptly. I hadn’t noticed all that before.

Those recent news items? One, a report on Bob Woodward’s book “Fear”, was about Trump’s anger over South Korea’s trade surplus with America. Trump wanted to withdraw from a trade deal with them, but his attorney swiped the paperwork off his desk so he wouldn’t sign it. He knew that Trump “seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list – in his mind or anywhere else – of tasks to complete.”

The other item was in last Sunday’s New York Times about Japan’s nuclear waste. They’ve been building a nuclear waste recycling plant for the last 30 years and it’s still not done. But they can’t give up the project, because the community hosting the facility doesn’t want to face the real problem: recycling the waste is not going to solve over 47 metric tons of plutonium that needs to be safely stored and/or permanently disposed. The community doesn’t want to host a storage site, and disposition is surely impossible in Japan.

Does anybody want to get things done? Apparently, Trump does not keep a list of Things to Do – not on paper or in his head. And Japan is going around in circles to avoid making a permanent plan for solving their nuclear waste problem (so is the U.S.).

It’s simple to make a “To-Do” or a “Results Wanted” list of unfinished things, but it’s hard to face how much we’ve got lying around waiting to be done. I guess we’d rather lie around. But even one completion can give us energy and relief – and it’s usually worth the effort.

If you aren’t getting things done at the rate you’d like, you can always try communication. Propose a task or project to someone else (Initiative conversation). Talk with them about how that task or project might be accomplished (Understanding conversation). Make a request that the other person do some or all of what is required to get it done by a certain time, or even just agree to be a support for you as you take it on yourself (Performance conversation). Follow up on how it’s going by whatever due date(s) you’ve set (Closure conversation).

PS – The subtitle we finally agreed on for our book was “Daily Communication that Gets Results”. Don’t read it unless you want some ideas on getting things done.