Timothy R. Clark: The skill and will of accountability

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 7:42 a.m. MDT

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I took my car in to have the breaks replaced. The mechanics replaced the breaks but they still squeaked. I took the car back. The brakes still squeaked. I took it back again. They still squeaked. I’m embarrassed to say that I took the car back six times. They still squeak, and it has now become a favorite pastime for the members of my family to enlighten me with the knowledge that the brakes have not ceased squeaking.

I tried to hold the auto repair mechanics accountable for their performance, but they waged a war of attrition and won. I’m not a litigious person, so I have chosen to live with the high-pitched squeal until the brake pads once again come to the end of their useful life. The point is that holding others accountable is one of the supreme tests of a leader. Is it a skill? Yes, but it’s more than a skill. It’s also a crucial act of will and managerial courage.

The performance cycle

Leaders have the responsibility to manage the performance cycle. A performance cycle is the interactive process of assigning and performing work. The cycle can be divided into three phases: front, middle and back. At the front end, the leader directs and delegates work to another person. In the middle phase, the leader coaches and provides feedback and guidance. At the back end, the leader holds the person accountable for the work product, acknowledges the contribution and accelerates performance from that point. This is what a successful performance cycle looks like. Our daily lives are filled with performance cycles that are defined by individual accountabilities to others.

Here’s the tough part: We often get to the back end and realize that we have squeaky brakes. The work is poor, shoddy, incomplete, over budget, past due or a hundred other things that miss the mark. Now what? Here comes the moment of truth.

The moment of truth

The moment of truth arrives when the leader recognizes that the work does not meet standard or expectation. If the work is acceptable, the leader has a very pleasant task ahead — acknowledging the good work, a gratifying experience for both the leader and the employee. But what if it’s not acceptable work? There are two options: 1. accept it anyway, or 2. reject and correct it.

Leaders call on a variety of skills throughout the performance cycle, such as delegating, communicating, coaching and motivating, to name a few. But accountability becomes more of an act of will at the moment of truth. The dominant failure pattern is accepting unacceptable performance. Why do we do it?

The most common reason is out of pain avoidance. We fear confrontation and we worry that addressing substandard performance will jeopardize personal relationships. Or we simply believe it’s not worth the hassle. And so we accept the unacceptable. We’ve all done this at one time or another. We simply let it go. But in the end, we realize that we have done a disservice to ourselves and to the person who should have been held accountable.

The act of will to hold another person accountable at the moment of truth requires managerial courage. Ultimately, a willingness to hold people accountable is often the determining factor in whether a leader is capable of higher levels of responsibility. As a Fortune 500 CEO said to me recently, “Many leaders simply don’t have the emotional maturity and confidence to have an adult conversation with another person and say, ‘I really like you as a person, but this level of performance is unacceptable.’”

Organizations often develop a “make nice” pattern of accepting low performance from their employees. With time, the pattern becomes a cultural norm that stirs resentment in high performers. People start to believe they have a right not to be held accountable. They are offended when called to account.

As a leader, what do you do at the moment of truth? Do you ignore squeaky brakes? Do you have a deep-seated sense of accountability? Do you possess both the skill and the will to hold people accountable in a positive way?

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He is a former two-time CEO and earned a doctorate from Oxford University. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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