Fear and Accountability

Fear & AccountabilityI was speaking with several members of our management team the other day about the staff and a particular area in which they need to improve.   In the course of the conversation one of my management trainees jokingly made the comment, “They’re afraid of you, Bryant.”  I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but in the days since I keep coming back to what she said.  I have a pretty healthy relationship with every individual on my team – they are all responsive to direction and also readily come to me with concerns and problems.  I know with a reasonably high degree of certainty that I am viewed as fair and equitable.  Further, I think most of them feel comfortable enough to challenge me on issues when there is strong disagreement or if I happen to personally offend them in some way.

Be that as it may, I’ve considered that there is undoubtedly some truth to her comment, even if it was stated in jest.  So, I’ve spent the last several days wondering just what it might be that anyone on the team is truly afraid of.  Mulling over numerous performance conversations, coaching examples, even past disciplinary actions, it finally dawned on me that it’s not actually me that they fear.  They fear the accountability I demand from them, or at least some of them do.

Some, if not most, people thrive on being challenged.  This is certainly true of all successful high performers.  These are the individuals who are highly autonomous, require minimal supervision, and are driven by their own personal measure of achievement.  People like this don’t fear accountability, they embrace it.  They aren’t discouraged by obstacles, they focus on objectives.  They demonstrate high levels of personal ownership and responsibility, visualize their success, and pursue their goals with enthusiasm and optimism.

People are fearful of many things in today’s workplace – job security, increased personal and professional demands, and uncertainty in general.  But those who specifically fear their leaders do so for two primary reasons – either they don’t trust the leader or they fear being held personally accountable for their job performance.  People cannot trust a leader who doesn’t consistently make fair and sound decisions.  This is why it is so important for leaders to be strong of character and unwavering in self discipline.  Lacking confidence in a leader’s ability and character, the subsequent uncertainty and inconsistency people feel breeds fear.

On the other hand, those who consistently under-perform against expectations while knowing with certainty that their leaders will hold them to a high level of accountability constantly live in fear.  They fear being held personally responsible for their actions, behavior, and performance, which they believe is to some degree beyond their control.  In fact, most chronic under-performers resist taking personal responsibility for their failures and their successes.  It’s easier for them to credit or blame others rather than shoulder the responsibility themselves.  They view themselves as victims of circumstance or plain old bad luck.  They justify their deficiencies by blaming those around them – customers, co-workers, managers, even the economy, etc.  They find all sorts of reasons and excuses in a lifelong attempt to prove that success or failure is something that simply happens.  From their perspective, this absolves them of personal responsibility, and they subsequently try to deflect attempts to hold them accountable.  To my point, they resist personal accountability and are fearful of those who impose it upon them.

People fear what is beyond their control.  Those who are highly autonomous with a strong sense of personal ownership, accountability, and control over their own success or failure are more confident and more effective.  These individuals among my staff are not fearful of me.  There is no reason to be, for they understand that they alone hold the power to make or break their personal success.  Those who are indeed fearful project that power onto me, for they would rather live in fear than take responsibility for their own success or failure.

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Championing Change – Developing a Culture of Alignment

GYI0050968476.jpgDeveloping a culture of alignment in any organization or team requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science. You have to realize, however, that any attempt to alter the culture must be carefully planned and executed. Managers too often function as information conduits. They orchestrate and delegate, hopefully participate, but when new directives are introduced, they simply call a meeting and make an announcement. If opposition is anticipated, they might host a breakfast or lunch meeting. For some reason, food is generally assumed to be a mitigating distraction for unpalatable announcements. And yet, while I can’t argue the benefits of a doughnut induced stupor early in the morning, the effects will be short lived unless the general health and culture of the team can readily weather a little upheaval.

A trusted and credible leader is an essential component to a well aligned team.  This is fundamental.  Transitioning the team from a reactive perspective to a culture of alignment takes time.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, the evolution might take a few years, but the benefits are well worth the investment in time and effort.

Understanding that modifying the culture of a group takes time, there is a specific methodology that I use as a basic road map for managing change.  I’ve consolidated this methodology into five fundamental component steps:

  1. Communicate Your Vision
  2. Align Your Power Base
  3. Engage Key Team Members
  4. Model the Behaviors
  5. Lead to Success

1. Communicate Your Vision
I wrote earlier that superior leaders focus on objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire people.  At the same time, they are also definite and decisive and trustworthy.  Again, trust is so extremely important for a leader to be viewed as credible.  People just won’t embrace the direction of a leader who they don’t view as trustworthy or credible.  The may adhere or obey out of fear or obligation, but there is no sense of alignment, no buy-in.

Visionary leaders with strength of character establish a productive rapport based on mutual trust and respect, but they also use discretion in communicating their vision.  They are cautious and purposeful and think strategically, positioning initiatives and objectives at the right time and under optimal circumstances (whenever practicable).  Communication with the team is carefully structured and organized to be clear, concise, and unambiguous.

2. Align Your Power Base
Effective leaders instinctively leverage their resources and build a power base of consensus.  In order to succeed, most change related initiatives require the cooperation of a number of stakeholder groups, including superiors, co-workers, and subordinates.  Strong leaders strategically align their power base by building a coalition of support among those with the highest level of influence.  Everyone has allies.  Leaders use their influence (some might call it “political capital”) to gain the support of others around them in key positions.  These allies, in turn, leverage their own power of influence to better ensure the success of the initiative.

3. Engage Key Team Members
Leaders, i.e., those with the power to influence others, exist at all levels of authority.  Within any team are individuals who wield greater influence than others, and some enjoy considerable influence over their peers, be it for good or evil.  Either way, smart leaders use this to their advantage (and to the benefit of the team and individual).  By engaging key team members who have significant influence within the group, and personally involving them in the change solution, a powerful asset can often be created.

Ironically, these individuals may not be your typical advocates, which is what makes them so effective at influencing the rest.  Human nature tends to point us to those who we most trust – those with whom we are already closely aligned, either personally or professionally.  But these folks may not necessarily have the highest degree of influence over the rest of the group.  Again, think strategically and step outside the box.

Sometimes, engaging those who are the least aligned with the organizational vision can have a remarkable effect.  Most people enjoy being brought into the confidence of their leader, even if they would never admit it.  They like the special attention and opportunity to be “in the know.”  Engaging a team member who would normally try to undermine an initiative or act as a detractor appeals to their ego.  There is a good chance that bringing them into the fold early and giving them a role in the change process will provide them the motivation to support the effort and become a positive influence among their peers.

4. Model the Behaviors
If the program being introduced is to have any chance of success, the leader has to own the effort.  This means demonstrating personal ownership of the initiative and being a role model for its implementation.  If you want it to succeed, you have to walk the talk.  Modeling the behaviors is as simple as that.

5. Lead to Success
In addition to modeling the behaviors that the rest of the team needs to adopt, the leader must be the champion visionary for the change initiative.  Navigating through a difficult change process requires unwavering conviction and a passionate and purposeful vision of success, as well as a clear plan for achieving it.  Effective leaders keep the focus on the objectives, addressing objections and removing obstacles.  They set the tone for the rest of the group with a confident, disciplined consistency that is at the same time applied with patience and empathy.

A consistent, ongoing effort, supported by strong and effective leadership, is required to create a culture that productively copes with change.  You can’t force change down people’s throats.  It just doesn’t work, yet this is exactly what many managers and organizations try to do.  It’s the “because I said so” mentality spinning its wheels in futility.  People can and will embrace change, but they need a reason to do so.  They need leaders who will champion both the cause and their collective effort – leaders who model the attributes of Character, Discipline, Humility, Courage, and Vision.