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.


About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 20 years’ experience focused on financial and operational efficiencies, talent development and optimization, improved employee engagement, and cultural alignment of teams within the organization. He has diverse experience in successful financial and strategic planning, brand management, leadership analysis and talent development, as well as designing and executing improvements to teams’ cultural efficacy and organizational alignment. Bryant has experience in both International Public S&P 500 Corporate and Non-Profit Sectors, and also runs his own entrepreneurial business venture, a consulting company specializing in helping small businesses and organizations improve operational efficiency, leadership development, and employee engagement . Bryant holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA).

5 Responses to Fear and Accountability

  1. Hi Bryant, Great blog Thank you for sharing your thoughts and accomplishments.

    On my office wall there is a plaque inscribed with:

    “With Every experience there is a level of knowledge acquired.
    With every experience and knowledge, there exists responsibility.
    With experience, knowledge, responsibility wisdom is created.
    Applying experience, knowledge, responsibility with wisdom create consequences.
    With consequences, more experience is acquired.”
    S Tuzzo 02-2000

    We are what are experiences have taught us.
    Thank You Bryant for this website. It has helped me grow.

  2. eloy says:

    I also know both kinds. Actually, I’m surprised to learn that “fearful, insecure” people end up being hired in our company. We even have some of them on the leadership role!!

    I found this blog as I search the net for some advice about these kind of people.

    How should you deal with them? Would they just be left alone? If there’s a way to make them productive, what is it? Do you know of any successful attempt of converting this people into owners of their accomplishments/failures?

  3. Bryant Rice says:

    Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people who resist personal responsibility. Some were in positions of leadership above me, some were peers, and many others were people who worked for me. There isn’t much you can do about those above you in an organization, but eventually most will self destruct. You simply cannot be successful if you don’t take personal responsibility for your failures and shortcomings. I’m sure there a numerous books on the subject. One you might try is Managing With Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations by Jeffery Pfeffer.

    Obviously you have considerably more influence over peers and subordinates. Still, not to sound pessimistic, but we’re talking about a pretty serious character flaw. Through individual coaching and a strong cultural alignment, I’ve helped a few people eventually change their mindset. Most, however, embrace the idea that their success is dependent upon outside influences – bosses, clients, co-workers, family members, friends, and random luck. To them, success is something that happens to them or doesn’t happen to them – but it always seems to be out of their control. There’s a quote by Arnold Glasow, “Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.”

    The fact is, you’re never going to change this mindset in anyone unless they want to change. People who absolve themselves of their own success actually find the concept comforting. It’s easier than taking personally responsibility. To your question, you cannot make them (or anyone else) productive. That’s the whole point. Everyone has to take personal responsibility for his or her success or failure. Otherwise, they will go through life a victim of circumstance.

  4. eloy says:

    wow.. thanks for your response.. it’s great to hear from someone who has far more experience on these people.. i’m actually going through the same problem right now.. i volunteered to help this team out (since nothing happens unless it is me who takes action), however the lead of this team doesn’t even want to provide her sign-off, she always needs her boss to look on the matter.. she won’t decide unless her boss already provides opinion.. she doesn’t even want to initiate a meeting but wants me to do it.. i can make a litany on this but in short, all about her shouts fear of accountability..

    she’s not the only one and since i’m thinking like a manager, i wanted to exhaust all the options to influence their behaviors or change their mindset before i just give up on them.. yet if i let them be and they are on the leadership positions, then it’s like letting the company/team get damaged, and this attitude may even spread to their directs.. it’s a chronic disease..

    i actually googled on ways to handle this issue that’s why i found your blog.. think i already heard about the book you mentioned .. thanks a lot! 🙂

  5. Ronn Ives says:

    I rewrote an old “truism”.

    It was “Knowledge is Power”.

    It now is “Knowledge + Application = Power”.

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