Crucial accountability – Part 1: work on me first

“Crucial Accountability” dives into the often challenging issue of addressing failed promises and unmet expectations. The book shares tools and steps for holding friends, family, and colleagues accountable for their actions, and enabling them to fulfill commitments and meet future expectations.

What to do before an accountability crucial conversation

1️⃣ Choose What and If – how to know what conversation to hold and if you should hold it

Choosing What

There are signs that you’re dealing with the wrong problem

  • Your solution doesn’t get you what you really want
    • If the solution you’re applying doesn’t get you the results you really want, it’s likely you’re dealing with the wrong problem entirely
  • You’re constantly discussing the same issue
    • When people repeatedly violate an expectation, those who are the best at identifying and then confronting the deviation redefine each instance with each new infraction. Those who observe repeated infractions and discuss each new instance as if it were the first one live the same problem over and over, and nothing ever changes. The first time a person is late, he/she is late; the second time, he/she failed to live up to the promise; the third time they’re starting down the road to discipline.
      In summary, if you find yourself having the same accountability discussion over and over again, it’s likely there’s another, more important violation you need to address.
  • You’re getting increasingly upset
    • Example: “She’s taking advantage of our relationship. She’s my neighbor, she’s helped me out a lot, and now she doesn’t do what I ask because she knows that I won’t discipline her since we’re good friends. At least that’s how it feels.”
      Not respecting promises is just the frozen tip floating above the chilly waters. Taking advantage of a friendship is the iceberg itself.

Confronting the right issue – tools to get to the right conversation

  • Think C.P.R.
    • The first time an infraction occurs, talk about the content, what just happened: “You drank too much at the luncheon, became inebriated, started talking too loud, made fun of our clients, and embarrassed the company.” The content of a violated expectation typically deals with a single event – there here and now.
    • The next time the infraction occurs, talk pattern, what has been happening over time: “This is the second time this has occurred. You agreed it wouldn’t happen again, and I’m concerned that I can’t count on you to keep a promise.” Pattern issues acknowledge that problems have histories and that histories make a difference. Frequent and continued violations affect the other person’s predictability and eventually harm respect and trust.
      Warning: it’s easy to miss the pattern and get sucked into debating content.
    • As the problem continues, talk about relationship, what’s happening to us. Relationship concerns are far bigger than either the content or the pattern. The issue is not that other people have repeatedly broken promises; it’s that the string of disappointments has caused you to lose trust in them: you’re beginning to doubt their competency and doubt their promises, and this is affecting the way you treat one another: “This is starting to put a strain on how we work together. I feel as if I have to nag you to keep you in line, and I don’t like doing that. I guess my fear is that I can’t trust you to keep the agreements you make.”


  • Consequences
    • Accountability issues are almost never contained in the behavior of the offender. They’re much more likely to be a function of what happens afterward. The problem lies in the consequences.
      The fact that you might lose a client is what really bothers you. Or maybe it’s the fact that this is the third time this person has let you down and you’re beginning to wonder if you can count on her. Or perhaps it’s the fact that you now may have to watch this person more closely, costing you precious time and making her feel micromanaged. Each of these responses is a consequence of the original act and helps unbundle the problem.
      When you want to clarify the focus on your accountability discussion, stop and ask yourself, “What are the consequences to me? To our relationship? To the task? To other stakeholders?”
      Analyzing the consequences helps you determine what is most important to discuss.
  • Intentions
    • You’ve examined the action, you’ve weighed the particulars, and you are starting to believe the person’s intentions are indeed bad. When this happens, the behavior isn’t the problem, at least not the big one. What came before the person acted is the challenge here, at least in your mind. It’s the issue you ought to discuss. You have to talk about intentions.

Decide If

You’ve unbundled the violation, picked the issue you care about the most, and reduced it to a clear sentence, and now you’re ready. You’re going to hold an accountability discussion with the other person. Or are you? Sometimes it’s better to consider the consequences before deciding whether to bring up the issue.

Usually when someone breaks a promise, you talk about it – circumstances demand that you talk, and you do – but not always. So what are the rules?

  • When it’s clearly a broken promise
    • Metrics that clearly show a difference between what was expected and what was delivered. These failed promises represent clear opportunities to hold an accounting.
  • When it’s unclear and iffy – what if the infractions are ambiguous or if discussing them could get you in trouble?
    • Not speaking when you should – to help diagnose whether you’re clamming up when you should be speaking up, ask the following 4 questions:
      1. Am I acting out my concerns?
        If the broken commitment is really bothering you, you’re unlikely to be a good enough actor to hide your feelings. You may try to choke your feeling down, but eventually they’ll bubble up to the surface in unhealthy ways. If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.
      2. Is my conscience nagging me?
        When you’ve gone to silence and your conscience is nagging you, you probably ought to speak up.
      3. Am I choosing the certainty of silence over the risk of speaking up?
        Accountability experts, only after they’ve decided that the conversation should be help do they ask the question, “How can I do this? Better still, how can I do this well?” If we reverse the order, starting with can and not should, we almost always sell out. We decide to clam up and then justify our inaction.
        Two silence-driving math tricks are:
        • Downplaying the cost of not speaking
          Here’s how we minimize in our minds the cost of continuing to tolerate the status quo.
          First, we look exclusively at what’s happening to us in the moment rather than at the total effect.
          Second, we underestimate the severity of the existing circumstances because we become inured to the consequences we’re suffering. With time and constant exposure we come to believe that our wretched conditions are common and therefore acceptable.
          Third, as was suggested earlier, we can’t see our own bad behavior when we fail to maintain silence. For example, we think we’re silently suffering under the thumb of a micromanager. In actuality, we act offended when the boss asks for details.
        • Exaggerating the cost of expressing our views
          Let’s look at how we routinely overestimate the costs we might experience if we did talk about a broken promise.
      4. Am I telling myself that I’m helpless?
        You figure that nothing you do will help. Either others are impossible to talk to, or you’ve already achieved the height of your accountability skills.
    • Speaking up when you shouldn’t
      There are times when it’s better not to bring up a problem or at least not to do so until you’ve done some preparatory work.
      Often, when you’ve weighed the consequences of speaking up, it is a better option to remain silent.
      While being true to one’s values may be noble, if you do so in a way that dishonors your peers(making fun of the less vigilant, bragging about your own commitment, etc), you’re upholding one value only to deny another: teamwork.

2️⃣ Master my stories – how to get your head right before opening your mouth

The hazardous half minute
The first 30 seconds of an accountability discussion can be called “hazardous half minute” because the overall climate and eventual results are becoming visible in that time frame. We establish the climate the moment we assume that the other person is guilty and begin feeling angry and morally superior. It takes only a moment to send an accountability discussion down the wrong track, and it all takes place inside our heads. Here’s what this looks like:

Another person violates a commitment, and, as a result, we’re propelled to action. Here’s the path we take: we see what the person did and then tell ourselves a story about why he or she did it, which leads to a feeling, which leads to our own actions. If the story is unflattering and the feeling is anger, adrenaline kicks in. Under the influence of adrenaline, blood leaves our brains to help support our genetically engineered response of “fight or flight,” and we end up thinking with the brain of a reptile. We say and do dim-witted things.

Consider the software development leaders. First came the observation: the software isn’t working. Next came the story: the testers didn’t run the final test because they don’t like doing them; in fact, they live in their own little world and don’t care what happens to others. Then came the feeling of anger, followed by a fierce and futile attack. This entire path to action – the jump from observation, to story, to feeling, to action – takes but a moment and sets the tone for everything that follows.

The problem: telling ugly stories

  • Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions
    • Most of the time human beings employ what is known as a dispositional rather than a situational view of others. We argue that people act the way they do because of uncontrollable personality factors (their disposition) as opposed to doing what they do because of forces in their environment (the situation).
    • The fundamental attribution error: assuming that others do contrary things because it’s in their makeup or they actually enjoy doing them and then ignoring any other potential motivational forces is a mistake. Psychologists classify this mistake as an attribution error. And because it happens so consistently across people, times, and places, it gets a name all its own. It’s called the fundamental attribution error.
    • During accountability discussions, the fundamental attribution error is as predictable as gravity: “She’s late because she’s self-centered. She doesn’t care about me. Just wait until she gets here!” The more tainted the history is and the more severe the consequences are, the more likely we are to assume the worst, become angry, and shoot from the hip.
  • Choosing silence or violence
    • Silence – no matter what the reason is, walking away from violated promises and broken commitments can be risky. When you see a violation but move to silence rather than deal with it, three bad things happen:
      1. You give tacit approval to the action. If you see an infraction and say nothing, the other person can easily conclude that you’ve given permission. You may feel that you’ve given permission, and then, realizing that you’ve given the action the green light, you find that it’s harder to say something later.
      2. Others may think that you’re playing favorites: “Hey, you never let me get away with that kind of stuff!”
      3. Each time the other person repeats the offense, in part because of your failure to deal with it, you see the new offense as evidence that your story about his or her motives was correct. You continue to tell yourself ugly stories, you fester and fuss, and it’s only a matter of time until you blow.
    • Violence – rare is the sudden and unexpected emotional explosion that wasn’t preceded by a lengthy period of tortured silence.
      • Violence is costly – when you move from silence to violence, you no longer keep accountability discussions professional, under control, and on track to achieve a satisfactory ending. In fact, when you move to violence, the consequences can be nothing short of horrendous.
        • You become hypocritical, abusive, and clinically stupid
          Friedrich Nietzsche once argued that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. This little homily is often quoted. It’s also often wrong. When it comes to emotions, abuse isn’t a blessing; it’s a curse.
        • You turn the spotlight on yourself
          Acting unprofessionally never earns you points. It takes the spotlight off the original offense and puts it on you at a time when you’re on your worst behavior.
        • The stories we tell help us justify our worst behavior
          Here’s the deal: you can’t solve a problem with a villain. You can do that only with a human being. Before starting an accountability discussion, come to see the other person as a person.

The solution: tell the rest of the story

Since the problem of coming up with ugly stories and suffering the consequences takes place within the confines of your own mind, that’s where the solution lies as well. The positive deviants we study observe an infraction and then tell themselves a more complete and accurate story. Instead of asking, “What’s the matter with that person?” they ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do that?”
By asking this “humanizing question,” individuals who routinely master accountability discussions adopt a situational as well as a dispositional view of people. Instead of arguing that others are misbehaving only because of personal characteristics, influence masters look to the environment and ask, “What other sources of influence are acting on this person? What’s causing this person to do that? Since this person is rational but appears to be acting either irrationally or irresponsibly, what am I missing?”

In order to take the required action, a person must be willing and able.

The Six Sources of Influence
  • Personal
    1. Personal Motivation – it’s the one that, considered, alone, makes up the fundamental attribution error.
      However, this model is also the source of influence that gets us in trouble when it’s the only factor we consider.
    2. Personal Ability – by expanding the model from one to two sources, we acknowledge the fact that people not only must want to do what’s required; they also need the mental and physical capacity to do it.
  • Social – social forces play such an important role in every aspect of our lives that any reasonable model of human behavior must include them.
    1. Social Motivation – should it surprise us that many of the ridiculous things both children and adults do are a result of simply wanting to be accepted by others? Healthcare professionals violate standards, scientists turn a blind eye to safety, accountants watch their peers break the law, and nobody says anything. Why? Because the presence of others who say nothing causes them to doubt their own beliefs, and their desire to be accepted taints their overall judgement. Social pressure is mother of all stupidity.
    2. Social Ability – in addition to motivating you to do things, other people can enable or disable you.
      When you don’t enable people, you’re likely to notice your role, and others are certainly likely to say something to you if you let them down.
      When your style or demeanor or methods cause resistance, others may purposefully clam up and not deliver, and you won’t even know that you’re the cause of the problem. You’ll just hear a lot of excuses and get no honest feedback, particularly if you’re in a position of authority. In this cause, you need to turn eyeball inward and look for the whole story by asking yourself, “What, if anything, am I pretending not to notice about my role in the problem?”
      You know people out there who do things that cause others to push back, resent them, reject their input, or drag heir feet. Here’s a news flash: sometimes you may be that person.
  • Structural – as you watch people going about their daily activities, you see that a great deal of what they do is affected by nonhuman factors. Much of what we do is a function of the structural world around us.
    You’re hungry (personal motive), your friends ask you to lunch (social motive), and the credit card you’re carrying (structural motive) puts you over the top.
    • Structural Motivation
      How do things motivate us? That’s simple enough. Money (and what it can get us) motivates people; that we know. Guess what happens when money is aimed at the wrong targets?
      For instance, managers are rewarded for keeping costs down, and hourly employees are rewarded for working overtime.
    • Structural Ability
      When it comes to ability, things can often provide either a bridge or a barrier.
      When it comes to the frequency of human interaction, proximity (the distance between people) is the single best predictor. Individuals who are located close to one another bump into each other and talk. Proximity or the lack thereof has an invisible but powerful effect on behavior.
      The following are a few other structural forces that can affect ability:
      • Gadgets – can have a more profound impact on behavior than most people imagine.
      • Data

We’re learning to fight our natural tendency to assume the worst of others and replace it with genuine curiosity to ensure that our first words and deeds create a healthy climate for ourselves and others.

2 thoughts on “Crucial accountability – Part 1: work on me first

  1. Pingback: Crucial accountability – Part 3: move to action   | alin miu

  2. Pingback: Crucial Conversations & Crucial Accountability | alin miu

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