Category Archives: Accountability

Elements of the Accountability Conversation

“When you talked to Taylor, what did you tell him?” I asked. Dana had just completed her first accountability conversation. It had not gone so well.

“I told him that I really liked the work that he was doing, but that he needed to come to work on time. And that I really appreciated the effort he was making,” Dana replied.

“I can see why he thought he might be in line for a raise. Dana, the first part of his behavior that you want him to change is coming to work on time. What impact does it have on the rest of the team when he shows up late?”

Dana stuttered for a second, then organized her thoughts. “Well, no one else can get started on their work, until Taylor is there. It’s not just him. In the fifteen minutes that he is late, he costs the team about 90 minutes of production.”

“And what are the consequences to Taylor if he doesn’t start coming to work on time?”

Again, Dana had some trouble. She had not thought this through to the next step. “Well, I guess he could get fired,” she finally realized.

“You guess? Dana, you are the manager. What are the consequences?”

“You’re right,” she concluded. “If I have to speak to him twice about coming in late, I have to write him up. Three written warnings are grounds for termination. So, yes, he could lose his job.”

“And, when do you want this behavior corrected?”

“Well, tomorrow would be nice.”

“Dana, if you want this behavior changed by tomorrow, you need to call Taylor back in here and have another go at this accountability conversation. What two things do you need to cover?”

“I need to talk about the impact he is having and the consequences.”

Not So Sage Advice – the Positive Sandwich

Dana was trembling when I showed up. The color was gone from her face. “Water,” she said, “I need some water.”

There was a chilled bottle on the corner of her desk, still full. I slid it to her, waited for her to continue.

“I don’t think I did that right,” she finally spoke.

“Step me through it,” I asked.

“I had to talk to Taylor. He has been coming late, dawdling on the work he is supposed to get done, and he is really snippy with everybody around him, like he has a chip on his shoulder.”

“So, what happened?”

Dana shook her head from side to side. “Well, I tried to be positive first, then the negative part, then finish it off with another positive. But I don’t think I got my point across. He thinks he is going to get a raise.”

Most of the Time, It’s the Manager

“Oh, man, they did it again!” Ralph exclaimed, covering his face.

“And how did you help them screw up?” I asked.

Ralph peeked between his fingers. “What do you mean? I didn’t have any part in this.”

“I know, I know,” I agreed. “But if you did contribute to the problem, what was it?”

Ralph started to chuckle, hands now propped on his hips. “Well, if I did have a hand in this, it was picking this group of knuckleheads in the first place. And I probably didn’t explain what needed to happen very well.”

“Indeed. As a manager, before we jump to blame the team, it is always important to ask the question.

“How did I contribute to the problem?

“The Manager is usually at the center of what goes wrong.” -Tom

What Went Wrong?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

We had a deliverable and the engineers on the project came in 3 days late. They finished the project and the quality was solid, so we want to acknowledge their success AND we also want to understand why they didn’t deliver on time. Extra hours were not put in near the end of the project to meet the delivery date. We struggle with acknowledging success when they are simply just doing what they were hired to do.

Response:

It really doesn’t matter what you, as the manager, think. The only thing that matters is what your engineers think. Based on your description, time sensitivity, or sense of urgency was not top of mind.

Project effectiveness, in this case is mixed. While the technical side may have been solidly constructed, the client may have lost several thousand dollars per day because of the delay. Many construction contracts contain liquidated damages for failure to meet deadlines. Most construction litigation is based around damages due to delay-claims.

So, time is important, in many cases, critical.

At the conclusion of every major project, I always insist on a post postmortem meeting to review the following questions:

  • What did we expect?
  • What did we do well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we do next time to prevent this from going wrong?

These questions would allow your engineers to pat themselves on the back for things done well and give them the opportunity to address real issues of underperformance.

On an extended project, I use these same questions at interim checkpoints.

  • What do we expect?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What is going wrong, what is beginning to slip?
  • What corrective action do we need to take, now, to get back on course?

Expecting engineers to call their own meeting to ask these questions will never happen. That is your responsibility, as the manager. Remember, what you think doesn’t matter. What matters is what your engineers think. -Tom

Would You Say It, If It Wasn’t True?

“You described the situation with your team like a rubber band. Your team is stretched, trying to deal with the problem,” I said, “what do you think the problem is?”

“The problem is that we are behind schedule,” Deana stated flatly.

“What if I told you the problem with the team has nothing to do with the schedule?” I proposed.

“What do you mean? That’s the problem, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind.”

“So, you are on the side of the project manager?”

“Yes. I mean, outside the meeting, without the ops manager, everyone on the team talked about it, and the truth is, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule,” Deana insisted.

“The truth?”

“Well, yeah, I wanted to check with other team members, get my facts straight and that’s what everybody thinks. When the project manager brought it up in the meeting, that is exactly the way he said it. He told the ops manager straight to his face, ‘Everyone in here thinks you manipulated the schedule.’ I don’t think he would say that unless it was the truth.”

“There’s that truth word again,” I smiled.

This is the story of a team in the classic struggle of BAMs. BAMs is the mental state of any group that drives its behavior. BAMs is in one of two states, work or non-work.

  • Work Mode vs. Non-Work Mode
  • Rational vs. Irrational
  • Scientific vs. Unscientific
  • Cooperative vs. Collusive
  • Controlled vs. Uncontrolled
  • Conscious vs. Unconscious

Deana’s team has a problem. In a classic move of non-work, the team mis-identifies the problem. The team does not have to deal with the real problem if it can create the appearance of working a different problem. The problem you solve is the problem you name. The team named the wrong problem.

I woke up this morning in a cold sweat. This is not the story of a team (your team). This is the story of a nation. This is the story of a nation in BAMs. Has the nation named the wrong problem?

The Team is Whispering

“So, tell me, Deana, if the ops manager is manipulating the project schedule, so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind, and if we can’t talk about it in the scheduling meeting, what will eventually happen?” I asked.

“It’s like a rubber band about to snap,” Deana replied. “The ops manager is so overbearing that everyone is terrified to bring it up, except the project manager. And my manager made it clear that if the project manager had a beef with the ops manager, they were to take it up outside the meeting, in private. So, it’s hands-off in the meeting.”

“Does this impact the team?” I wanted to know.

“Of course. How can we fix schedule delays, when the schedule says we are on-time?”

“What will happen?”

“I don’t know. The project manager is about ready to quit. He feels helpless, and no one on the team will support him, or even ask a question about it. More than one meeting got so tense that my manager squashed any kind of meaningful discussion. The rest of the team is whispering about all kinds of rumor-mill stuff at the water cooler.”

“How do you know all this?”

“People are coming to me privately. They feel like they can trust me. I mean, no one is stabbing anyone in the back, but if they are willing to talk about other people behind their back, what are they saying about me behind my back?”

“Why do you think your manager stopped the discussion in the meeting?”

Deana thought for a minute. “I think she was afraid of losing control of the team. I think if she allowed the confrontation to happen in front of the team, it might blow the team apart.”

“Tell me what is happening to the team,” I nodded.

“The team is coming apart anyway,” Deana concluded.

What’s Not to Talk About

“So, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?” I repeated.

“Well, thank goodness my manager was there. When the project manager accused the ops manager of manipulating the schedule, no one knew what to say,” Deana replied.

“So, everyone checked out and looked to the senior-most manager in the room. Was the ops manager manipulating the schedule?” I asked.

“You know, no one is really sure. I was talking with one of my team members after the meeting and he thinks it was a big cover-up.”

“So, the situation was never resolved. We don’t know why we were behind schedule. We don’t if the schedule was accurate. We don’t know how to prevent this in the future.”

“What we do know,” Deana thought out loud, “if we are ever behind schedule and try to cover it up, we won’t talk about it in the meeting.”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. Ask me and I will send you a one page pdf about the program. Or you can follow this link to find out more.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

To register, just ask Tom.

How the Team Avoids an Issue

“How do I know, working with my team, when we are dealing with a real issue?” Deana wanted to know.

“How does your stomach feel?” I asked.

“It feels fine,” she replied with a quizzical look.

“Then, we are just having polite conversation,” I nodded. “Have you ever sat in a meeting when someone said something that made you feel uncomfortable?”

Deana’s eyes glanced to the ceiling, then back to the conversation. She nodded with me. “Yep. We were working on a big project, tight deadline, behind schedule, angry client. In the meeting, the project manager jumped all over the ops manager, accused him of manipulating the project schedule to cover up the ops team being late. It was kind of creepy. Usually if someone has a beef with somebody else like that, they talk about it in private.”

“What impact did that have on the discussion?”

“Everything stopped. My manager was in the room. She called a halt to the meeting, said if they couldn’t get along, they would have to leave the meeting.”

“Then, what happened?”

“Everyone shut up and moved on to talk about the next project. It was under control, so things calmed down so we could finish our meeting.”

“So, what do you think was the real issue? And how did your stomach feel?” I prodded.

“So, if the conversation has my stomach doing flip-flops, then the team is probably facing a real issue?”

“And, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

For registration information, ask Tom.

Panic and Seduction

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You suggest that a manager must push work to the team and that is the only way to gain control. I pushed work to my team and things got worse. Chaos emerged. I was better off before. I had to step back in and take control.

Response:
Of course, things got worse. It was a seduction. You pushed decision making and problem solving to the team and they panicked. This not-so-subtle shift of accountability from the leader to the team sent the team into panic.

As long as the manager is making all the decisions and solving all the problems, as long as the manager is barking orders, raising the voice of authority, repeated lecturing about misbehavior and underperformance, the manager has all the accountability. It was a seduction.

When accountability shifted, the team panicked, chaos ensued and the seduction began again, to have you, as the manager step in and take it all back.

The most effective position for the manager in this seduction is very simple. Outlast the panic.

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

For registration information, ask Tom.

The Illusion of Managerial Control

As managers, we do all kinds of things in an attempt to maintain control. In our roles, we are given goals to implement with our teams. Our teams, at some point, let us down, there is a bit of mistrust coupled with the adage learned from our mothers that if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself.

Unfortunately for our (control-freak) minds, there is too much work to do ourselves, so we find it necessary to assign tasks to our team. Yet, we tip-toe out and peek over shoulders, not micro-managing, but enough oversight to identify a mistake in the method. We take corrective action, perhaps a performance-improvement-plan, increase the frequency of our coaching and dial up the volume.

Still, it makes little difference. In spite of the shouting, the gathering of metrics, the deadline is missed and the defect rate is above threshold. We sit in our office, after hours, with our head in our hands and wonder we are the only ones who seem concerned about this lack of accountability. We have lost control.

This scenario of control is an illusion. It does not exist except in the mind of the manager. The manager can only control what one person can control and there is too much work to go around for one person.

The manager who carries all the keys to all the doors and all the closets (makes all the decisions and solves all the problems) will never be in control. Only when appropriate decision making and appropriate problem solving is pushed to the team does the manager resume control. It is counter-intuitive. The only way to really be in control is to let go.

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017

For registration information, ask Tom.