A client of mine is struggling to remain competitive in an industry where smaller, more agile competitors are nibbling away at their market share. They believe that their organizational culture needs to change in order to be successful. In a recent phone call with the company’s top leaders I asked who was responsible for creating the organization’s culture. Crickets. Finally, the head of strategy said, “To be honest, we feel more like custodians of the culture than the creators.” Someone else on the call piped in, “Actually, we are more culture complainers than culture creators!” That didn’t sound good.
Have you ever gotten in your car, driven to work, found a parking spot, sat at your desk, and wondered: How did I get here? If you ever experienced this, you were probably on automatic pilot, unconscious of what you were doing because you do it so often. Now let’s say you got in your car, started to drive, and suddenly a detour took you far out of your way. What happened then? Perhaps you began to worry about missing an important morning meeting. Probably, you drove with heightened awareness, your grip tightening on the steering wheel. And maybe you arrived at the office grouchy, immediately complaining to your co-workers about those so-and-sos who messed up traffic during rush hour.
Everybody believed Paul was the problem. His teammates complained in anonymous interviews that he was overly critical and negative. They said he dominated conversations, and became aggressive when someone disagreed with him. Despite acknowledging his deep technical knowledge, Paul’s teammates said that if he left the team they would be more effective. Ouch. But Paul wasn’t their only complaint. They also grumbled about not having influence with the senior executives who sponsored their work. And they criticized Mary, the team leader, for not confronting Paul or their senior leaders. I had been hired by Mary to facilitate the development of her team. Part of my agreement with Mary was to provide the team with the anonymous input from my interviews. I commonly use this approach (called action research), but I had never heard such a hairball of negativity from a team before.
When clients proclaim, ‘we’ve got to hold people more accountable’ I can’t help but smile. Why? Because the declaration, itself, displays such a lack of accountability. ‘We’ve got to’ diffuses any responsibility for taking action. But imagine if the speaker said, “I’ve got to hold people more accountable.” Then we’d be getting someplace. The first step to holding others accountable is to hold oneself accountable, and most of us believe we do so. But even the most powerful leaders among us often take on the mindset of victim, the enemy of accountability.
One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts two excited executives sitting in a meeting. One says to the other, “Let’s keep things here exactly the way they are.” The other responds, “Yeah, let’s not change anything!” Many of us want to change our organizations so they are collaborative and innovative, with a focus more on customers than on internal politics. Yet leading change can feel like pushing a boulder uphill as people cling to the familiar ways of the past, while nodding in agreement that things need to change.