Tag Archives: accountability

Not a Communication Problem

“I think I have a communication problem with my team,” Jordan explained. “It seems like I have to constantly explain, interpret, assign and reassign, clarify, all to come back and do it over again. I think my team needs a communication seminar.”

“And, what would you hope the outcome of this seminar to be?” I asked.

“That the team understands,” Jordan simply put.

“And, what if I told you I don’t think you have a communication problem?”

“What do you mean? It sounds like a communication problem to me.”

“My telephone rings for two reasons,” I replied. “Most people call to tell me they are in the midst of a communication crisis, or have an unresolvable personality conflict on their team.”

“Like me, a communication problem.”

“In my experience, in the throes of explaining and clarifying, you fail to establish two things. I don’t think you have a communication problem, I think you have an accountability and authority issue. You failed to establish, in the task, in the working relationship, what is the accountability, meaning, what is the output? The second thing missing, in the pursuit of that output, who has the authority to make decisions and solve problems?”

“So, I need my warehouse crew to move material, according to a list, from the warehouse to a staging area for a project. I explain what needs to be done, give them the checklist and then they get stuck.”

“Stuck on what?” I asked.

“The material to move is blocked by other material, the forklift aisle isn’t wide enough for the material, or the forklift is down for maintenance,” Jordan shook his head, “so I have to come back and solve those problems before the team can do their work.”

“Not a communication problem. It’s an accountability and authority problem. What is the accountability (output)? And who has the authority to shift materials, find an alternate forklift aisle or fix the forklift?”

Who Controls the Variables?

“What is structure?” Melanie asked. “I draw boxes and circles, with lines and arrows. The question that guides me is – who reports to whom?”

“And, that would be accurate,” I replied, “if you worked in a command-and-control, reporting environment. This misconception about most organized companies leads us astray.”

“But, that’s my central question, my guiding principle when I put the org chart together. Who reports to whom?”

“Indeed, as managers, we sit around the table discussing a new recruit coming into the company tomorrow. And, the question is, who should this person report to? Quite seriously, it’s the wrong question.”

“I’m listening,” Melanie replied.

“It’s not a matter of who this young recruit will report to, but which manager, around the table, will be accountable for the output of this new hire? It’s not a matter of reporting, it’s a matter of accountability, and it’s the manager who is accountable.”

“Seems upside-down,” Melanie observed.

“Does it?” I responded. “Think about it. This new person comes into the organization. Who designed the role for this person to play? Who determined what this person should do? Who determined the quality spec of the output? Who selected this person to play this role? Who trained the person? Who provided the necessary tools, created the work environment? Who controls all the variables around this person?”

Melanie paused, the answer so obvious. “The manager, of course.”

“Then, why should the manager not be held accountable for the output of this new hire?”

Bone-headedness

Mark nodded, head-bob up and down. “It would seem very different for us to talk about performance issues in the executive management team. I am not even sure how I would start.”

“Why don’t you start with yourself?” I asked. “I am absolutely certain there are some shortcomings in the company that you can own, where you could have made a different decision, or handled something in a different way. Why don’t you start with yourself?”

“I suppose if I can’t think of something, you will say that I am in denial,” Mark replied.

My turn to nod. “We are often in denial. The sooner we confess to a problem, especially our contribution to a problem, the faster we can get on with solving it, learning from it, avoiding it in the future.” I stopped. “So, think about a decision you made that was hasty, not thought through well enough, that now, with 20-20 hindsight, you can clearly identify as bone-headed. What would it sound like to ask for feedback from your executive team?

“I want you to think about something,” I continued. “When your team makes a bone-headed decision, it costs pennies. When you make a bone-headed decision, it can cost millions.”

Talking About Performance Issues

Mark thought long and hard before he responded. “But, bringing up her underperformance in front of everyone else is not my style.”

“You’re not talking about her underperformance in public OR private,” I said.

“You’re right, I should talk to her in private,” Mark shrugged.

“I didn’t say either way, but why are you so uncomfortable bringing up performance issues in the executive management team?”

“Well, you know, it would be uncomfortable,” Mark admitted.

“Of course, it would be uncomfortable. Do you convene your executive team to talk about comfortable issues? If there is no contention, no conflict, no active discussion, what would be the point?”

“We are just not used to that. I would like to think we treat each other with respect.”

“You can be respectful and still hold someone to account for their performance,” I insisted. “The reason you are not used to talking about performance, with respect, is that you don’t practice it.”

Under the Rug

“I had such high hopes for her,” Mark explained. “We watched her, promoted her to our executive management team, encouraged her. And, she is failing. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to dampen her spirits if there is anything we can do to save her.”

“Have you talked to her directly, about her underperformance?” I asked.

“Well, we have been kind of waiting until the end of the first quarter, keeping our fingers crossed.”

“Have you tried to bring her underperformance out into the open?”

Mark shook his head. “No, in fact, I asked everyone NOT talk about it in our weekly management meeting. I don’t want to discourage her. Do you know how difficult it is to find someone of her caliber?”

“Just to be clear,” I replied. “Now, that you have moved from a state of denial, you are still willing to hide the problem, not discuss it or actively look the other way?”

Mark tried to speak, but he knew how any response would sound.

Accountability and Responsibility

I often hear the words “accountability” and “responsibility” used interchangeably. I have to interject, the words are different.

Accountability refers to the output, the deliverable, the objective, the goal. That output, will be judged by someone as complete, satisfied, achieved.

Responsibility, however, is an internal feeling. It is the relationship between the person and their own social conscience. In most cases, this is a positive feeling that supports the behavior engaged in pursuit of a specific accountability. So, it’s a good thing.

Moreover, in looking towards a leader, I would endeavor to find a sense of responsibility in support of the expected accountability. When I look at organizational context (culture), I look for those elements that instill a sense of responsibility toward the accountability we seek to achieve. I look for this, not only in designated leaders, but in the minds (and hearts) of team members. Not too much to ask for, from customers and vendors.

Accountability and Authority

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about setting context, that context is the crucible in which management behaviors exist. How do you more specifically define that context and where should managers begin?

Response:
Every role in an organization exists with other roles. Individual action, more specifically, individual accomplishment is a myth. No one is an island. Every organizational behavior affects another part of the organization. Context is the way we define those working relationships.

The two most critical elements to be defined in a working relationship are accountability and authority. To be effective in any role relationship requires that each person understands the accountability (output) and authority in that relationship.

In a given relationship between a manager and a team member, who has the authority to make a decision about the way a problem should be solved? If you suggested the manager, you would be correct.

But, might that lead to autocratic decision making, where a manager might run rough-shod over the team?

It might, were it not for a specific accountability. The manager has the authority to make the decision, but also the accountability to collect relevant data around that decision, which, in many cases will come directly from the team. Theoretical conditions must be matched with actual conditions. Theoretical materials must be matched with actual materials on hand, available consumables, machine uptime, even temperature and humidity. Along with every authority, must come accountability.

Editor’s note – this is not usually the case with a government oversight committee, who would like to think they have all the authority with no accountability. Every authority comes with accountability.

Inside the Function

“Take your most important internal function,” Pablo instructed. “In the beginning, likely will be operations. What is the work most closely related to producing the product or delivering the service? Especially in the beginning, that is mostly short-term work, 1 day to 3 months. Most production roles have a supervisor, with longer term goals and objectives, 3 months to 12 months. The supervisory role is to make sure production gets done, completely, on time, within spec.”

“So, every production person knows they have a supervisor?” I added.

“And, every supervisor knows they have a manager,” Pablo smiled. “This is the beginning of structure, nested goals and objectives related to successive roles (context), a production role, to a supervisory role to a managerial role.”

“The roles are distinguished by longer timespan goals and objectives?” I suggested.

“Yes, the roles are different in that way, but also in the way they relate to each other. Organizational structure begins with nested timespan goals, but also includes the way we define two things associated with those role relationships.”

“Accountability and authority?” I chimed in.

Pablo nodded. “In this working relationship between the team member and the supervisor, what is the accountability? What is the authority?”

My turn to show off. “The accountability on the part of the team member is to apply their full capability in pursuit of the goals and objectives agreed to by their supervisor, in short, to do their best. It is the accountability of the supervisor to create the working environment that makes those goals and objectives possible (probable). It is the accountability of the supervisor for output.”

“And, the authority?” Pablo prompted.

“The authority to make decisions and solve problems appropriate to the level of work in the task.”

Not Just Showing Up

“I’m still not following you. Showing up, making a presentation and getting the order, is not the work of a salesperson?” Brent protested.

“Those are valid activities, prescribed duties, but not the work,” I replied. “Tell me, on every sales call, what must be discovered about the prospective customer, before a sale can be made?”

“Well, you have to find out the customer’s need. If they don’t need it, they are not going to buy it, especially right now.”

“And what is the goal?”

“To write the order,” Brent shot back.

“By when?” I asked.

Brent stopped. “We have sort of a two-call closing process,” he finally concluded. “The salesperson needs to write the order by the end of the second call.”

“So, tell me, what are the problems that must be solved, what are the decisions that must be made by the salesperson to reach the goal by the end of the second sales call? Because that’s the work.”

What Are the Decisions?

“You mean they might not be doing their best, because they are not interested in the work?” Brent repeated.

“So, tell me what is it, about the work, that is not interesting?” I asked.

“Look, we are in sales. This is a struggling economy, supply chain issues. It’s easy to not get excited.”

“You are not answering the question. Tell me about the work,” I insisted.

“We show up to an appointment, make a presentation and ask for the business.”

“That’s a good start,” I nodded. “Those are the prescribed duties. Now tell me about the decisions your salespeople have to make when they are on these appointments.”

“I don’t understand,” Brent furrowed his brow.

“I think that’s the disconnect. You are right. Showing up and making a presentation is not very interesting. Of course, that is what you have trained them to do, but that is not the work of a salesperson.”