Don’t confuse accountability with scaring someone

Managers and Accountability

Common problem at work: a unit has goals. The unit doesn’t hit those goals. The manager of that unit is stressed, and probably on the hook to a higher manager (who’s also pissed about those goals not being met), and so the lower manager explodes at his/her people about missing the goals. This type of shit literally happens every day, quite possibly every hour, in companies as huge as Apple and as small as some mom-and-pop architectural firm down the block. Goals get missed, people get dressed down, and we rack it up to “Oh, that’s working life!” But what if it doesn’t have to be? 

I think we know by now that most managers aren’t great and even fewer seem to actually understand ideas like “motivation” or “respect.” That’s a baseline for this discussion. I can put down as many words as I want on something that seems logical, but if someone’s still a douchebag who only understands worshipping at the temple of ill-set deliverables, well, I can’t help that person.

Consider this, though:

  1. Take a breath (that’s the four seconds part). Slow yourself down for the briefest of pauses — just enough time to subvert your default reaction. In that moment, notice your gut reaction. How do you tend to handle poor performance? Do you get angry? Stressed? Needy? Distant? Your role is to give people what they need to perform, not what you need to release.

  2. Decide on the outcome you want. In this case it’s fairly straightforward: improved performance. Still, be specific. What does this particular person need in order to turn around this particular poor performance or failure? Maybe it’s help defining a stronger strategy, or brainstorming different tactics, or identifying what went right. Maybe they need to know you trust them and you’re on their side.

  3. But here’s what people almost never need: to feel scared or punished. And more often than not, that’s how we make them feel when we “hold them accountable” in anger.

  4. Choose a response that will achieve the outcome you want, rather than simply making your already obvious displeasure more obvious.

That’s Peter Bregman writing in Harvard Business Review, and he’s basically laying out what you should do (as a manager) when someone on your team underperforms or misses targets. I mostly agree with the above, although it’s kind of sad that the above has to be even listed. No. 3 is particularly relevant: people almost never need to feel scared or punished.

I have a friend that just moved from LA — > SF for a gig, right? The new gig is higher-intensity, as you might expect because the vibe of SF is a little bit more “work” than the vibe of Los Angeles, probably. My friend hasn’t been killing it at his new job, to the point that he had to have a realistic talk with his boss about whether he was gonna get fired. That came off a series of dressing-downs.

Again, people believe that the way you drive home “accountability” is by raising your voice, yelling, painting a bad picture, and making the other person feel small. That’s actually not at all how you relate to people, especially if you’re in a leadership context relative to them.

Here’s what I’d add:

Work can oftentimes make no sense to a logical, functioning person. Basically what happens at a lot of places is this:

  • There’s some senior leadership team who sequesters themselves often and drives all the decisions.
  • You don’t feel connected to the decisions being driven, but your goals emanate from them.
  • When you try to pursue your goals, you’re often confronted with small things that seem to matter a lot (like the wording of a paragraph on a memo or something).
  • When you don’t meet goals that you (a) weren’t connected to in the first place and (b) seem to change often, you can get yelled at and made to feel like shit.

Imagine if you were walking down the street and something happened on the other side of the street — you’re not connected to it at all, right? — and suddenly a dude sprints across the street and starts dressing you down for what just happened. Sometimes, work can feel like that. Honestly.

So there’s a lot you can do as a manager to make it better — but oftentimes, people won’t do it because of how they view themselves in a managerial sense — but before anything, here’s what you should do: realize that establishing “accountability” can come from an actual connection and trust with someone. It doesn’t have to come from yelling, screaming, name-calling, and belitting. Make sense?

Ted Bauer

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