One of the prevalent issues that contributes to low performance in organizations is a general lack of personal accountability, the symptoms of which show up in a variety of ways with varying degrees of impact. Unfortunately, it is often those closer to the front-line who get the brunt of the blame because the impact of their work is immediately evident. If a machine operator doesn’t follow procedures to do his/her quality checks on night shift, the results show up in the form of a bunch of off-quality product, and someone has to be held accountable. If a salesperson fails to do the proper follow-up with the client and the sale that was about to be closed is lost, they’ll have to answer for what happened. Meanwhile, the enormous negative impacts of the decisions and actions of top management can often be explained away by citing factors beyond their control and sharing new strategies that will make the next quarter’s results better. Sometimes these executives are held to account and end up having to deal with the headlines announcing their dismissal, but often, the multi-million dollar golden parachute eases that pain until they land their next opportunity. On occasion, of course, there is a celebrated moment when a CEO or top executive stands up and accepts responsibility and then becomes an instant celebrity -- a rare breed of executive doing exactly what leaders are supposed to do anyway.
I don’t point this out to bash top executives, many of whom are hard-working highly accountable people. I point it out to emphasize that our performance correction processes, sometimes referred to as “accountability systems,” often don’t meet their original intent. It is prudent to pause and examine whether these systems are designed and executed properly to truly enhance the performance of the individual and the team, or to punish people.
Transformative Leaders who create High Commitment Cultures (HCC), in which extraordinary results are produced through high levels of personal accountability, know that performance correction is the last line of defense. They do plenty to proactively set people up for success by clarifying expectations, equipping people with tools, skills, and robust work systems. They provide timely feedback and support to keep a person from ever getting to the point where they are about to “get in trouble” so to say. They also recognize the value of a performance correction system that serves to convey the gravity of the situation to a team member who is not meeting expectations, not to punish that person, rather so that they can make better choices and correct their behavior.
In this post, I’d like to highlight the foundational beliefs and design principles that High Performance Organizations (HPO’s) use to guide the design and execution of their performance correction mechanisms. Let’s start with the foundational beliefs and the mindset of Transformative Leaders when it comes to helping people improve their performance. Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of reporting to great leaders who embraced these beliefs and can tell you that they stand in stark contrast with those whose reputation for throwing people under the bus preceded them. These beliefs and principles have also served me well as a leader in that I can think of countless people whose performance was turned around, and their lives and the lives of their families were transformed.
The foundational beliefs I’d like you to consider in your approach to performance correction are as follows:
Accountability is role modeled at the top. The level of accountability in the organization reflects the same at the top.
Every person inherently wants to do well. Until the person has corrected their behavior or is no longer part of the team, it is the leader’s responsibility to constantly look for ways to set that person up for success.
You can’t “hold people accountable.” You can only create the conditions in which they choose to think and act in an accountable manner.
Look to the system first, then the person, to find the root cause of low performance.
Respect is not conditional based on performance. The worst performer in the workplace still deserves to be treated with respect, even when their actions call for corrective actions.
The responsibility for clarifying expectations and providing timely and accurate feedback rests on leadership.
In addition to adopting these beliefs, it is also critical to design and execute the process in a way that reflects these beliefs and delivers optimum value to the individual and the team. As such, the following features of the system play a key role on whether the intent of the system is met or not.
85% principles, 15% rules
It’s easy to establish a bunch of rules for what not to, assign points for each infraction and then dish out a punishment when a certain number of points is reached. It doesn’t take a great deal of leadership judgment to manage by rules. It may be efficient because it doesn’t require a lot of thinking, but it’s not always effective.
While it is important to establish clear standards relative to acceptable behavior and performance, the number of rules about what happens to a person if those standards are violated should almost always be decided on a principle basis, with a few exceptions. You may have a few rules that say if a person steals or engages in workplace violence, they have in turn proven that they are not a fit and may be terminated following a thorough investigation. However, if you have a rule for everything and get into assigning points, what happens is that everyone figures out where the line is, abusers figure out how to go right up to the line without crossing it and you’ll end up promoting mediocrity.
In most cases, it should be left to the discretion of the leader to decide what the appropriate action is to get the person’s attention and cause them to behave differently. Of course, this works much better if the leader has established trust with the organization. Otherwise, people prefer the point system because if they don’t trust their leader, they are willing to trade the possibility for leniency in case their situation warrants it for the guarantee that they will be treated according to a set of rules that are used for everyone.
Focus on behavior correction, not punishment.
Unlike pre-established fines for traffic violations that are focused on gaining compliance, automatic consequences and pre-determined punishments for every infraction in the workplace are not effective, in that they don’t generate commitment. Punishment is backward looking, as in “You did X, so you get Y as a consequence.” Performance correction should be forward looking, as in, “What action does it take in the case of this particular individual to achieve the desired behavior change.”
There ought to be a step-wise process and it should be followed most of the time.
When someone goes into the performance correction process, it is important that they know where they stand. There should be a step-wise process that is followed as the person progresses in it. The only time when steps are skipped should be in case of deliberate and significant outages that warrant the person to progress multiple steps or even up to termination in the system.
When determining whether a person has committed the infraction they are accused of, use the facts in each situation, not the person’s past behavior.
None of us would want to be railroaded and presumed guilty just because we have had a less than stellar past performance. Extend the same courtesy and respect to others.
When determining the severity of the corrective action to take, do take the person’s history into account.
This is important because if a person has already received a verbal warning for a certain performance outage and they do the same thing again, they may be advanced to a written warning, whereas another person with a spotless performance record who does exactly the same thing on that same day may only receive a verbal warning.
Being consistent, and doing the same thing in every situation are two different things.
I’m sure many of my corporate lawyer friends have checked out by now because the idea of having to explain principle-based decisions in a court of law and justifying why Mary got a verbal warning but Jack got a written warning for doing the same thing is not their idea of a fun day. However, this is a distinguishing factor between HPO’s and others. In HPO’s, the leaders decide what the right thing to do is with counsel from HR and lawyers, and in other places, lawyers and HR make the decisions with input from the leader.
Confidentiality must be protected at all costs.
When the leader is making principle-based decisions, and especially if he/she has not earned the organization’s trust, there will be rumors of unfair treatment because people only see and hear bits and pieces of the facts. They might hear from the people themselves what action was taken and conclude that the leader is not acting fairly. It is tempting to share information to justify the leader’s actions, but this is not acceptable. The leader certainly ought to be able to explain his/her rationale and be consistent with the principles, but airing people’s dirty laundry to squelch rumors of unfair treatment is not acceptable.
I hope you are able to use these ideas as food for thought as you design and execute your performance correction systems so that they cause the person who is going through it to make choices that will lead to their own success as well as the success of the team.
Further Reading: A Counter-intuitive Approach to Creating a Culture of Accountability
As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note that registration for our Transformative Leader Workshop Retreat in September is now closed. If you are interested in attending a future event, please send us an email at email@example.com and we will be happy to inform you when the next session is scheduled later this year.
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