Category Archives: Teams

A Shift in Accountability

“They don’t give me an early warning because if production is late, they know I will be upset and I will want to know why they failed to produce the desired result, I guess,” Vicki winced. “If I don’t find out about an order that’s late, I can’t get angry. At least until the customer calls. That’s when emotions flare up.”

“And how many of your customers don’t call when you are late?” I asked. “If you are using your customer as your QC system, is that where you really want to be?”

“I know, I know,” Vicki replied.

“So when you hold your team accountable for your result, as a system, it creates behavior that is not ideal. You don’t truly find out about production pacing until there is a visible breakdown. What can you shift to make that change?”

“You are suggesting that I am the one accountable for the team’s results?”

“More than a suggestion,” I replied.

Early or Late?

Vicki was almost laughing. “Do you mean, that if my team can work faster, finish early, they are supposed to tell me? I’m sorry, my team will expand the work to whatever time frame they think I will buy.”

“I understand that,” I replied. “That is actually Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to the time allotted. So, what is it about your system, as a Manager, that has created that circumstance?”

“Well, it’s not me, that’s just the way my team is. I mean, they are not bad people, but if I give them until noon, they will take the whole time. That’s just the way they are.”

“Vicki, I want you to think about the opposite of the same circumstance. Let’s say, instead of being able to finish early, your team cannot get all the work done and will finish late?”

“Oh, well, that is a completely different story. That’s when things get testy around here, that’s when the wheels start coming off. They never let me know, usually until it’s too late, until the deadline is past. Sometimes, unless I am on top of every order, I don’t find out until the next day that an order is still being worked on.”

“So, what is it about your system, as a Manager, that has created this circumstance, that you are not given an early warning about task completion, early or late?”

Not a Communication Problem

“I am a bit confused,” Sarah explained. “As an executive management team, CEO included, we were frustrated about some issues that were not going well.”

“And, what did you do?” I asked.

“We thought it best to take a survey, kind of a company climate survey, to let everyone chip in and express their opinion about things gone wrong and how to fix them,” she said.

“And, what did you find out?”

“Just as we expected, a large number, more than 50 percent described our problems, related to productivity and morale, as a communication issue.”

“And, how did you go about addressing the issue?” I pressed.

“We hired a communication consultant, and held a series of communication seminars, so everyone could attend,” Sarah stated flatly.

“And, the results?”

“It’s been two weeks. At first, everyone was fired up. People were being nice to each other, but, here we are two weeks later and nothing has really changed. Productivity statistics are unchanged and we still experience heated exchanges about who is to blame.”

“Do you think communication is really the underlying problem?” I wanted to know.

“When you use the word – underlying, it leads me to believe I am looking in all the wrong places,” Sarah sighed. “So, is communication the problem, or only a symptom of the problem?”

“Let’s assume, for a moment, that communication was accurately identified by your survey as a symptom of the problem,” I floated. “What might be the underlying cause of the problem?”

Sarah had to stop, a bit of silence. She finally spoke, “Some people in the survey said they were unnecessarily blamed for things going wrong, that it really wasn’t their fault. Others said that if productivity was really wanted, that the incentive program should be changed. Some said they knew how to fix some of our problems, but they didn’t have the authority to make the decision, they were overruled by their manager.”

“I think we are moving away from the symptom, and getting closer to the cause,” I observed. “Most people, when they call me, tell of a communication problem. After some time, I can usually convince them that communication is not their problem. It’s usually an accountability and authority issue.”

The Mentoring Conversation

“So, what does the mentoring session sound like?” Brendon wanted to know. “If it is different from the direct manager coaching session, what does the manager-once-removed talk about with the team member?”

“First, this is NOT a coaching session, so the mentoring session does not happen as often, perhaps once every three months,” I replied. “This is a longer timespan discussion, so more reflective than action oriented. They talk about the role, the role’s contribution to company, where that fits. They talk about the decisions the team member makes, the problems the team member solves and their capacity to do so. The purpose of this conversation is to create a clearer picture of the team member’s current contribution and their potential contribution. When the team member has a clearer picture of their potential contribution, their current contribution improves.

“In this conversation, the MOR also asks about the aspirations of the team member. Some team members have no idea of their own aspirations, never thought about it. The MOR is looking for intersection between the team member’s aspirations and the company’s aspirations.

“Most of all, this is not a psychotherapy session. The focus is on the work, challenge in the work, learning opportunities, advancement opportunities, to create a vivid picture of where the team member stands and steps forward.

“People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

Best Position for Mentoring

“I am still having difficulty with this,” Brendon pushed back. “It’s all up-front, the manager knows the MOR is having career-ladder discussions with individual team members, but why is the manager-once-removed (MOR) the best person to have these discussions?”

“I know you still think the manager, being closest to the team member, would be the most likely person to have these discussions,” I replied, “but the manager is largely focused on productivity, workplace safety and output. It is the manager-once-removed who has accountability for creating and maintaining an effective talent pool.

“It is the manager-once-removed whose scope covers more than the immediate team, who sees opportunity in other areas of the organization. Simultaneously, the MOR has an accurate judgement from the immediate manager on each team member’s current capability and potential capability gleaned from 1-1 meetings with the team’s immediate manager.

“It is the MOR who is the perfect position to conduct these mentoring conversations.”

It’s Not a Breakdown in Communication

“You are dipping your toes in this subject area called trust,” I nodded. “If the manager is to trust the team member, it starts with selection. I get that. But, how does accountability, laid at the feet of the manager, engender a sense of trust?”

“If the manager understands their accountability for output of the team member, blame goes away,” Pablo replied. “We often think blame is a personality disorder, or a breakdown in communication. Blame gets resolved, not through a communication seminar, but by defining, understanding the working relationship between the manager and the team member. When the manager understands, assumes accountability for output, there is no one to blame. The manager has to look inward, to determine what change the manager can make to impact the output.

“You see,” Pablo continued. “Let’s say we get a shipment of defective parts on an assembly line, a little plastic burr that has to be ground off before it can be assembled, and the grinding takes an extra 30 seconds. If our production output was intended to be 100 units per hour, but those 100 units now cause 50 minutes an hour of deburring, we can get behind quickly. And, that’s no matter how hard the team member works, it still takes 30 seconds extra per unit.”

“What does this have to do with trust and mistrust?” I wanted to know.

Pablo obliged. “If the team member is held to account for the output, they have nothing to say except to point out the deburring work. The team member cannot authorize someone from another team to come to help, or to pull two other deburring grinders from another work cell. They have no context for the output of the other work cells. And, if they are already doing their best, they can work no harder, they can work no faster, the deburring still takes an extra 30 seconds. If they are berated by their manager for the shortfall in output, there begins a mistrust of their manager. The team has little control over the conditions of their raw materials, it is only their manager that can accommodate the anomaly in production. This small bit of mistrust can begin to grow and ultimately erode the relationship. And, it is not personalities or miscommunication that is causing the mistrust, it is the definition of the working relationship between the manager and the team member AND where we place accountability for output.”

Where Trust Starts

“So, it’s that simple,” I prodded. “Hold managers to account for the output of their team? That’s the beginning, that’s where we start?”

Pablo nodded. “Managers, who have before blamed their team, will begin to pay attention to the care and feeding of their team. It starts with who they let onto the team. If it is well understood that the manager is accountable for the output of the team, managers will develop a more rigorous selection criteria. Fogging a mirror will no longer be acceptable. If we can only assume the team member shows up to do their best, the manager has to make sure their best will be good enough.”

“You are talking about hiring?” I asked.

“That’s where it starts,” Pablo smiled.

A Well Argued Decision

“Let’s take meetings,” Pablo suggested. “Lots of managers AND their teams work hard to gain concensus, avoid conflict, at times even attempt to make decisions democratically.”

“I have seen that,” I said.

“And that manager of the team, also has a manager, let’s call that role, the manager-once-removed, the manager’s manager,” Pablo described the setup. “If the team and their manager engage in democratic decision making and make a bone-headed decision, who does the manager-once-removed hold accountable?”

Manager-Once-Removed (MOR)
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Manager
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Team

“Well, I assume it would be the whole team, manager included,” I observed.

“Who is the manager-once-removed going to call into the office to discuss this bone-headed decision, the whole team? If we are going to call in the whole team, what do we need the manager for?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“And, what of the dynamics in the decision meeting? If the decision is to be democratic, then team members will lobby their own agendas, sometimes hidden politics emerge to gain support from other members, perhaps a little arm-twisting. The manager almost becomes a bystander. And, yet, at the end of the day, it is the manager called to account for the bone-headed decision.”

“And?” I asked.

“It is only when the manager becomes accountable for the decision, that we can make headway,” Pablo described. “Team members now show up to provide feedback and support to the manager, who will make and be accountable for the decision. The team will play devil’s advocate, argue this position or that position, in short, create conflict. The point of the meeting is not to manage conflict, but create it, for the benefit of the decision. Don’t manage conflict, manage agreement.”

“And, the benefit?”

“A well argued decision,” Pablo said. “This only happens when we understand the working relationship between the team and the manager, with the manager accountable for the output of the team.”

Change the Context

“And, to promote the social good for the team employed by my company,” Pablo said, “I have to believe in the good inside each person. I have to create managerial systems that support that belief.”

“What you say is counter to many managerial practices,” I said. “In my travels, I see compensation systems, bonus and incentive programs that rely on greed and competition over compensation. I see team members with a narrow focus only on the next promotion, hidden agendas, backdoor politics, even backstabbing. I see a general mistrust of authority inside the company.”

“Yes, often that is what you see,” Pablo replied. “And, it is through no fault of employees. They engage in behavior to survive inside the system in which they live. If we create a system that relies on greed, we will get greedy behavior. If the only way we acknowledge contribution is by status, if the only thing that feeds a person’s self concept is a promotion, then you will get politics based on power. If you want to change the behavior, change the context in which they live.”

Important Connection

“What would be valuable for you to know about a team member, as a manager?” I asked.

“Well, what motivates them. What makes them want to come to work,” answered Nathan.

“There is a story about three men who were working together, each doing the same job. When asked about their work, each replied differently. The first said that he was breaking rock. The second said that he was constructing a building. The third said that he and his colleagues were building a school in their community so their children would have a place to learn to read.”

I watched Nathan’s eyes absorb the story. Finally he spoke.

“I suppose it would be valuable to know what is important to each of my team members.”

“Why would that be valuable to know?”

“I have to find the connection,” Nathan started, “I have to find the connection between what is important to them and their work.”

“And if you can find the connection?”

“Then we are in. The sky turns blue, the flowers bloom and the birds sing.”

“And if you cannot find the connection?”

“Then the work will be repetitious, the work will be like breaking rock.”

“And?”

“And, so, I have to keep searching to make the connection.” The conversation became quiet. Nathan was searching, perhaps thinking about his own connection.