(Oldies But Goodies: We frequently get requests to re-publish past Duncan Report posts. This one is returning by popular demand.)

In Parts 1 and 2 of this post on accountability, we explored behaviors of people who don’t take responsibility for their performance — compared to people who do. This time we’ll explore how “Make It Happen” people use mutual respect and mutual purpose to hold others accountable.

Of course with mutual respect and mutual purpose comes a willingness to account for one’s own performance. This includes accepting responsibility for personal performance shortfalls as well as accepting credit for personal performance triumphs.

ConversationIn Crucial Conversations, a bestselling book by four of my colleagues, dialogue is defined as the free flow of meaning between two or more people. Notice that the definition doesn’t mention agreement. It focuses on the free flow of meaning. My version of good performance may not square with yours. So if we are to work together productively, both of us must be comfortable enough to put our own meaning into the shared pool. Only then can we make each other smarter, concur on mutual purpose, and produce a result that satisfies us both.

A “crucial conversation” is defined here as an interaction with high stakes, varied opinions, and at least the potential for strong emotion. What could fit that definition more closely than a conversation about someone’s performance?

All of this presupposes that people in successful accountability relationships (like managers and direct reports) must be able to talk with each other openly and honestly, early and often.

Of course for some people open and honest communication is a bit like having a baby: it’s easier to conceive than to deliver.

A set of five extremely helpful skills in Crucial Conversations is captured in a handy acronym: STATE My Path.

STATE stands for Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing.

In a conversation about someone’s performance, it’s always best to begin with the facts. And be very careful not to allow stories to masquerade as facts. Facts are observable and verifiable. Conclusions, attributions, and judgments are the feelings we have and the stories we tell ourselves about the facts.

Which is a better start?

“I’m fed up with you.” (feelings)

“You’re totally irresponsible.” (story)

“On the past seven projects you’ve missed your production deadline five times and exceeded budget on six. Each time you apologized and promised to do better with the next project.” (facts)

Sharing your facts – first – is less controversial. Facts are less insulting because, well, facts are facts.

I’m not suggesting that crucial conversations about someone’s performance are necessarily easy. Sometimes they are quite uncomfortable. But not nearly as uncomfortable as the certainty of unresolved performance issues.

After you have briefly Shared your facts (don’t pile it on), Tell your story. Explain the conclusions and judgments you’ve drawn from the facts you just shared. This might be expressed as simply as “I’m beginning to wonder if you’re not as committed to our success as you had led me to believe, of if something else is going on.”

Asking for the other person’s path (how he got the results he’s now getting) can be as simple as saying “How do you see it?” This opens the door for the other person to put his meaning into the pool, to tell you how the world looks from his vantage point. This includes making it safe for the other person to share new ideas and to challenge your facts.

These first three skills are called the “What” skills. The “How” skills are Talk tentatively and Encourage testing.

Talking tentatively does not mean expressing false doubt, tip-toeing through issues, or sugarcoating your views. It merely means that you don’t try to ram your perspective down someone’s throat. “The only reasonable option …” is too forceful and usually not as effective as “I propose that you consider …” “You’re completely incompetent …” is likely to trigger a response very different from what you might get with “I’m wondering if a bit more coaching would be helpful.”

Encourage testing is the “how” skill of inviting others to challenge your own thinking. If your goal is to convince, compel, or control, you’ll likely do a good job of expressing your view but a lousy job of encouraging others to express theirs.

I heard one manager make a mockery of this skill when he said to his staff “I think any smart engineer can see that my approach is the right one, but, hey, if any of you want to challenge my way, take your best shot.” So much for dialogue.

When performance accountability is important – and when is it not? – a good place to start is with open dialogue about mutual purpose and mutual expectations.

What does great performance “look like” to you? What does it “look like” to the person to whom you’re delegating? What are your mutual expectations on deliverables, timelines, budgets, and all the other parameters of the task?

Where, when, and how will the accountability sessions occur?

Consistently effective managers and leaders find that it helps to be explicit about what kind of performance they stand for and what kind of performance they will not stand for. They recognize victim, villain, and helpless stories when they see them, and they disabuse their people of any notion that the blame game is acceptable.

Consistently effective managers and leaders are accountable for holding others accountable.

Rodger Dean Duncan
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