What Cottage Cheese Can Teach Us About Accountability

How do you handle moments of accountability? How do think most people handle them?

We’ve found the vast majority of people say nothing. They see a gap between what they expect and what’s delivered and they go silent.

Unfortunately, we pay a price when we say nothing.

Imagine fumbling through the refrigerator for a quick afternoon snack. You pull out a carton of cottage cheese, open the lid, and realize it’s spoiled.

It looks terrible and smells even worse.

Then you think to yourself, “Maybe if I set it out on the counter where it’ll get some sunlight for a few days, it’ll get better!”

It doesn’t get better, does it? In fact, it gets much, much worse.

That’s the metaphor I want you to keep in mind when you consider what happens when you don’t confront the gap between what’s expected and what’s delivered

What happens if you procrastinate in having a difficult performance conversation? What happens if you let a problem go unaddressed?

It doesn’t get better, it gets worse.

Paying The Price For Silence

We were doing a study in health care and we found that one patient was checked the hospital for a tonsillectomy.

They gave her the anaesthesia, took her to surgery, and then amputated 3/4 of her right foot! When she woke up and found out what happened, she was hysterical. It was a horrific mistake.

The hospital administrators were appalled and immediately launched an investigation.

How could this possibly have happened?

They interviewed every single person who had anything to do with the patient’s care, from the admittance clerk to the recovery room nurse, and discovered that seven people recognized something wasn’t right, but not a single one said anything.

No one spoke up, including the medical technician who stocked the tray for the surgery.

As he was reviewing the list of surgical tools, he probably wondered why they needed a bone saw for a tonsillectomy. But, instead of speaking up he stocked the tray and said nothing.

If just one person spoke up, this tragedy would’ve been prevented.

A Culture of Silence

As we began working with the hospital, collecting data, and trying to understand the culture, we found that they’d created a culture of silence.

If you walked through the halls, you’d have seen people talking and interacting. It looked no different from any other hospital, but as soon as a significant expectation gap appeared, they’d go silent.

We interviewed groups of employees and asked, “What does it take to get along here? What does it take to get ahead? What does it take to do well?”

Over 90% of respondents said, “Never question a doctor.”

In fact, nearly everyone we interviewed could name someone who’d be fired for challenging a doctor and many of them had broadened that assumption from physicians to management.

They’d created a culture of silence.

Never question your boss. Do what you’re told. Don’t rock the boat.

They believed the key to keeping their jobs was to be silent during expectation gaps.

Could there be a culture of silence in a large Fortune 500 company?

Could there be a culture of silence in a small division of a company?

What about a work team? A relationship? A family?

We found that cultures of silence can exist everywhere.

When you postpone a conversation that’s needed or avoid it altogether, it will get worse, not better — just like leaving the cottage cheese out on the counter.

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