Chuck was agitated as I walked into his 24th floor office.  He skipped our traditional social chat. “I’ve had it with Cheryl,” he said irritably. “Its time for me to hold her accountable. I swear, I would fire her right now if I could.”

Too often, I hear clients announce that they’re going to “hold someone accountable,” but what they’re really doing is angrily venting their frustration.  Though the leader might feel justified by “coming down hard,” the impact is rarely positive, and often has nothing to do with accountability. Worse, the boss may leave feeling better once they’ve unloaded, but are often oblivious to their actual impact in terms of erosion of trust and decreased motivation.

Chuck was a mid-level bank executive. When hired, he was seen as a succession candidate, but three years later that was in doubt.  In meetings, Chuck came across as overly compliant and unwilling to challenge peers or superiors. In addition, he had difficulty managing two of his five supervisors, both of whom were experienced and self-confident.  “So what kind of performance problems are you having with Cheryl?” I asked.

The presenting problem

Chuck began by listing a litany of “unprofessional” behaviors that included her careless appearance and moodiness. Then he revealed her most recent ‘crime.’  Cheryl had publicly, and unskillfully, disagreed with Chuck in a meeting attended by his peers and his boss.  Worse, his boss had agreed with her. Chuck was embarrassed and incensed.

I asked Chuck what he wanted to accomplish in speaking with Cheryl.   He restated his desire to “hold her accountable for her insubordination.”  I pointed out that his response described what he wanted to do but it did not describe what he wanted to accomplish as a result of the conversation.

I had known Chuck for a while.  He was the first in his family to get a college education via an ROTC scholarship. He was proud of his military service, which he claimed ‘molded him’ as a leader.  Discipline, rigor and “doing the right thing” were core values he frequently referenced.

The real problem

Chuck and I spent an hour separating Cheryl’s actual performance issues from things she did that irritated him.  Most items were what he called “insubordination.” When pressed, Chuck acknowledged that what he labeled “insubordination” was based on Cheryl’s willingness to challenge his authority and speak up when she disagreed.  But ironically, she was ‘guilty’ of doing the very things that Chuck’s boss and peers were asking him to do more of himself.  With this insight, he revisited his list of annoyances, and noted that most lacked substance.

As I helped Chuck explore his thinking, his anger morphed into understanding.  He realized that his employee had not been “insubordinate,” just clumsy.   In many ways, her “insubordination” represented what he had been encouraging his whole team to do more of: take risks and challenge the status quo. He just hadn’t realized that the change he was promoting would require him to change his own behavior in response!

I had to give Chuck credit.  The personal work he was doing was difficult, and inspiring to observe.  He was confronting long-held beliefs that were driving his behavior, and he was holding himself accountable for the impact he needed to make as a leader. Given his apparent shift in perspective, I asked:  “so now what you want from your conversation with Cheryl?”

New insight, new alternatives

He paused and responded sheepishly: “I think I need to thank her for her courage.  And, I need to give her feedback about when and how she corrected me, and talk through some ground rules that might help all of us.”  Chuck paused, and then added, “and, I probably need to acknowledge to the whole team that what I’m asking them to do has some challenging implications for me that I hadn’t considered.”

When I asked how he wanted Cheryl to feel about herself as a result of their conversation he laughed.  “I have to admit that earlier, I really wanted her to feel ashamed and apologetic.  The truth is, it serves me if she leaves that conversation feeling confident and appreciated.”

Too often, I am asked to help repair damage from “accountability conversations gone wild.”  Productive accountability conversations generally start with a review of expectations, followed by a dialogue regarding where things stand, where they need to be, and what’s in the way.  When anger creates urgency to dole out a hefty dose of “accountability,” effective leaders exercise self-control.   In other words, they hold themselves accountable to get to the root of their anger before confusing it with others’ performance.david avatar reduced size

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