The habit of not holding others accountable in the face of possible disaster is all too common. Our research shows 95 percent of a company’s workforce struggles to confront their colleagues and managers about their concerns and frustrations. As a result, they engage in resource-sapping avoidance tactics including ruminating excessively about crucial issues, complaining, getting angry, doing extra or unnecessary work and avoiding the other person altogether. What’s more, our research revealed the ramifications of avoiding conflict are extremely costly.
We’ve found that employees waste an average of $1,500 and an eight-hour workday for every conflict they avoid. In extreme cases of avoidance, an organisation’s bottom line can be hit especially hard. Specifically, a shocking 8 percent of employees estimate their inability to deal with conflict costs their organisation more than $10,000. And one in twenty estimate that over the course of a drawn-out silent conflict, they waste time ruminating about the problem for more than six months!
Dealing with Disappointments
Our research over the past three decades confirms that with certain people and circumstances, we simply don’t bring up infractions. Not with a boss. Not with a colleague. Not with a doctor. Not with a relative. Oh yes, and not even with a stranger who cuts in line. And why do we shy away from accountability discussions? Because we either don’t know what to say or our past experience tells us that speaking up is too risky and only leads to poor results, ruined relationships, or a damaged reputation.
For example, over 70 percent of project managers admit that they’re hopelessly late on their project because their deadline was unrealistic and yet they failed to speak up when it was first created. Nobody wanted to appear incompetent or uncommitted in front of a zealous leader. And if an impossible deadline isn’t bad enough, when cross-functional team members put the project at further risk by failing to meet their commitments, there is a less than 20 percent chance anyone will approach them honestly to discuss the broken commitment. When responding to others who have disappointed us or treated us poorly, most of us feel trapped between two bad alternatives. We either perpetuate the problem by saying nothing or we speak up, but our frustration and heightened emotions make it hard to say something without being abrasive or rude—which only perpetuates the problem. And even if we are skilled at speaking up, what happens when the conversation becomes more fluid and complicated? After respectfully pointing out a broken commitment, what do you do if the other person isn’t motivated to do the correct thing, doesn’t know what to do, sidesteps your concerns, or goes on the defence? How do you hold others accountable then?
We’ve long wondered what it would take to restore accountability in a woefully silent and complicated world. We found the answer not by studying the problem, but by studying the solution.
Learning from Positive Deviants
Early on in our consulting work, we met with a large manufacturing organization that, according to the plant manager, had lost all semblance of accountability. “You’d have to kill a person to get fired around here,” he said. “A really popular person,” the HR director added with a smirk.
Our first inclination was to ask the plant manager if there were any supervisors who actually did hold others accountable. The plant manager thought of a few individuals who managed to hold others accountable in ways that not only solved the problem but also improved relationships—and all without involving formal authority.
Thus, began our first attempt to study positive deviants—people who struggle in the same circumstances but find a way to produce remarkably better results. In a world filled with failure, we found a handful of individuals who succeeded in the face of danger, observed them in action, identified exactly what they did that differentiated them from their less successful peers, and then taught these unique actions to others.
While these successful few had many skills for successfully holding others accountable, they routinely employed these five skills when confronting violated expectations, broken commitments, and bad behaviour:
- Confront the right problem. Often, bad behaviours occur just once, and these single infractions are relatively easy to confront. However, when you unbundle larger accountability issues, you’ll often find a pattern of infractions or, over time, a damaged relationship and compromised trust. The biggest mistake people make is to confront the most painful or immediate issue and not the one that gets them the results they really need (the pattern or relationship). Before speaking up, stop and ask yourself, “What do I really want here? What problem do I want to resolve?”
- Rein-in emotions. We often tell ourselves a story about others’ real intent. These stories determine our emotional response. Master communicators manage their emotions by examining, questioning, and rewriting their story before speaking.
- Master the first 30 seconds. Most people do everything wrong in the first “hazardous half-minute”—like diving into the content and attacking the other person. Instead, show you care about the other person and his or her interests to disarm defensiveness and open up dialogue.
- Reveal natural consequences. The best way to get someone’s attention is to change their perspective. In a safe and non-threatening manner, give them a complete view of the consequences their behaviour is creating.
- Diagnose motivation and ability. Fight the human tendency to assume that all problems are the result of a lack of motivation. While people can be unmotivated, often, their failure to deliver on a promise is the result of an ability barrier—they don’t know how to do what is required. Inquire to find out if the other person is truly unable or unmotivated. Then find solutions that address the correct barrier.
The impact of teaching these skills and other actions of positive deviants has been astounding. Our research shows that people who are skilled at holding accountability discussions waste significantly less time complaining, feeling sorry for themselves, avoiding problems, and getting angry. They no longer feel trapped between two failing options. They know that it’s in their best interest to speak up and they do—producing enormous gains to the bottom line.
For instance, after we spent a year teaching best practices at one manufacturing plant where accountability was reported to have been lost, people started dealing with infractions in a direct and professional way, and profitability increased by more than $40 million in one year. When asked how this took place, the plant manager explained, “Our leaders now talk early on and solve problems before they grow out of control—and they do so in a way that not only solves the problem but also strengthens the relationship.”
We learned that in order to find people who were good at holding others accountable, we simply needed to ask leaders who their most valued employees were. Almost without exception, the top-valued employees selected by the leaders were positive deviants who learned how to hold others accountable. If and when you learn how to hold others accountable and bring predictability and trust into an organisation, you will also be counted as one of your company’s most valued assets.
A culture with weak accountability is one where those who see problems say nothing because they assume, they don’t have the authority or skills to raise a concern. Learn how to restore accountability to your teams and organisations here.