Crucial Accountability QA

Creating a Culture of Accountability

The following article was first published on October 5, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,

I manage a large staff of around seventy nurses. How do I begin to change the culture from no accountability to full accountability?

We are not speaking of the patient care aspects—the staff is outstanding in this area. I’m concerned about everything else: keeping the desk area free of clutter, returning mandatory education or memos on time, noting when some problem in the unit needs attention and either ignoring it or coming to me to “fix” everything, etc. I am getting worn out and need some help with this aspect.

Thank you,

Dear Exhausted,
You are not alone! Thousands of managers and employees feel exactly the same way. Helping people deal with accountability is one of the main reasons we wrote Crucial Confrontations. Whether you work with seventy nurses or just one other person in a toll booth, you will have issues with accountability. Why? People are people and circumstances are complex. At some time, you will face a broken promise, a violated expectation, or bad behavior.

Before I answer your specific question, let me congratulate you. The core work—in your case, patient care—is going well. Other things are slipping—punctuality, paperwork, and work environment—but your challenge is not as severe as what many face (things like issues with quality or productivity where organizational survival is in question).

So to address your situation, I’ll focus first on what might be called the “non-core” gaps. A gap is the difference between what is expected and what is delivered. At the heart of your frustration and exhaustion, I imagine, is that you have been very clear about what is expected. What a clutter-free desk looks like has been clarified. Why it’s important has been articulated to the point of feeling like nagging. The same is true of the paperwork and due dates. But there is little compliance or performance. Then comes this loud, persistent, intense voice in your head that clamors, “Why can’t these people do something as simple as getting rid of the clutter? It’s clutter for heaven’s sake, not asbestos!” Sometimes this voice is so powerful that it slips out between your very own lips. For many people, this cycle occurs at home with such issues as a clean room, curfew, and toilet seats.

Given that, let me make a few suggestions.

  1. Make sure that the expectation is clear and explain up front why it is important. Often, managers or parents tell others what is expected but they don’t take a minute to help them understand why it is important or essential. Unfortunately, the implied message is, “Because I said so!” or “Because I want it.” That’s not particularly motivating or empowering. Help the other person know what the positive consequences will be if he or she follows through, and what the natural negative consequences will be if he or she doesn’t. When you talk about potential negative consequences, what you want to do is help employees see how patients or families or colleagues or even the employees themselves will be affected. What you don’t want to do is talk about imposed consequences like “writing them up.” A few moments of helping others see the “what” and the “why” can help performance.
  2. When assignments are given, even about something as simple as keeping a clear desk, make sure you are clear about who does what by when, and follow up. Often one of these aspects is not clear. Who will keep the desk uncluttered, what uncluttered looks like, when it should be done, and when you will check back should be very clear. If you leave one of these details out, the commitment or assignment is less effective.
  3. Don’t oversimplify. Treat the issue like an ability issue rather that a motivation issue. If we assume that people don’t want to do something, we often try to motivate them with power and subtle or not-so-subtle threats. Even that raised eyebrow can carry many messages. If we treat the gap like an ability issue, we ask for ideas. People close to the problem, the process, and the opportunities very often have good ideas. So ask, “What could be done to make this easier?” If others have a good, workable idea, they are more likely to follow through on it. Also, they may suggest some bottlenecks, barriers, or complexities that you are unaware of. The outcome is that you have a better solution with increased commitment.
  4. Look at the example that you and other leaders are setting. For example, consider the following situation in a home setting. A mother is consistently demanding that her daughter clean her room and her bathroom. Mom takes away television privileges until the room is clean. She grounds her daughter for the weekend until the room is clean. The daughter, in talking with her friends, wonders if her mother thinks she’s blind. Why, asks the daughter, doesn’t Mom have to clean her sink, her closet, or her bedroom? This seems like an obvious problem. And yet sometimes managers and leaders have a hard time seeing the example they are setting on issues like clutter, punctuality, paperwork, civility, communication, and even controlling costs. When accountability suffers, look to the leaders, including self.

In summary, when gaps persist, clarify what’s expected and why; make sure there’s agreement on who does what by when and follow up; ask for ideas; and look at the example that is being set.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Spouse's Out-of-Control Budget

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

The following article was first published on October 26, 2005.

QDear Crucial Skills,

My husband travels for business quite often. Recently, he left for a conference a few days prior to the actual event. I know for a fact he was not there to entertain clients ahead of time. He called me during the conference asking if I could transfer money into his account because he spent all his budget money at the bar. This has been a recurring issue with his spending, and I think he needs to change jobs. I’m tired of being responsible for paying the bills and buying the groceries out of my budget money while he is out with his friends. How do I approach this with him?

Over Budget

A Dear Over Budget,
Whatever you do, do not try to solve this problem by taking control. If you do, you will enable the very behavior you are trying to influence.

Most of us so loathe having crucial confrontations that we’ll do anything possible to avoid them. Some of us just withdraw and complain. Others take control. For example, attempting to force solutions on others that we think will resolve the root cause of the concern.

In your case, you sound tempted to influence your husband to quit his job. While his job may be contributing to his budget excesses, if you take responsibility for forcing that solution on him, he is likely to reject your advice and take even less ownership for the real issue.

The real issue here is that he is violating his agreements with you. It is not that he is spending a lot of personal money on business trips. You must be clear on that distinction; otherwise, when you raise the concern he will be likely to focus on spending patterns between the two of you.

So my first piece of advice is to focus on the right issue: You have lost trust in your husband’s willingness to keep his agreements with you.

Second, make sure you don’t undermine your ability to have this conversation by acting it out rather than talking it out. Avoid the temptation to check up on him, control the bank account, make sarcastic comments, or withdraw approval or affection in order to compel him to comply with your desires. In the public realm we say that your success in a crucial confrontation is predicted by how safe you can make the other person feel. At home I’ll be even more direct–your success in this crucial confrontation will depend on your ability to influence him through an undiluted mixture of absolute love and absolute honesty.

Making it safe is not just about skills used in the conversation. You could think about the skills we teach for conversational safety as tools for maintaining situational respect. These skills ensure that while you’re talking to your husband, he knows that you care about his needs and problems and also that you respect and love him.

Another part of safety is relational safety–this is the safety, affection, and respect that he feels from you on an ongoing basis. You will have no more influence with him than you have ongoing safety in your relationship. So be sure you are regularly maintaining the warmth and affection in your relationship.

Having done that as best you can, you must now be completely honest with him about (a) your desire to have a wonderful marriage with him, and (b) your unwillingness to have a relationship where someone is dishonorable in his agreements.

If you open the conversation with safety–that is, a demonstrated commitment to having a terrific relationship–you will be much more likely to then have a searching discussion about why he is breaking his agreements. Explore all the reasons he is doing this. Jointly develop solutions–which may include changing his work situation–to help him keep his agreements. But ensure that he is responsible for helping develop these solutions, not that you are compelling him to agree with them.

If you focus on the right conversation, keep the relationship strong, create safety in the conversation, and explore the many possible reasons for the problem, you are likely to have a positive outcome.

If you’ll allow a final philosophical comment–I firmly believe that none of us achieve our potential as human beings except through relationships where others love us enough to challenge us to improve ourselves. So, the conversation you’re preparing to have is not evidence of a bad relationship; it’s evidence that you’re attempting to achieve what your very relationship is for.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with the Unreasonable and Irrational

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

The following article was first published on June 1, 2005.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

What if you are not dealing with a reasonable, rational, and decent person? Is this possible or do you genuinely believe that each person with whom we interact fits this description?

I look forward to your comments.

All the best,

A Dear Skeptical,

The “fundamental attribution error” is the automatic assumption we often make that the other person’s motives are bad. This can happen when someone says or does something we think is harmful or threatening. We immediately attribute bad motive–we tell a villain story: “they are evil or selfish; they do bad things because they enjoy it.”

To keep from making the fundamental attribution error, we recommend challenging your story with questions. One such question is “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?”

Posing the question is NOT making an assumption that all people are reasonable, rational, and decent; rather, posing the question IS an effort to consider other possibilities. This question helps us explore other assumptions and not automatically assume that the worst story we can come up with is the only one we should consider. When we replace our certainty that the other person is bad and wrong with the recognition that we don’t know why the person did what he or she did, our emotion changes from anger and frustration to curiosity and maybe even concern.

Now, instead of being pushed by our anger into silence or violence, we’re much more likely, in a condition of curiosity, to ask questions and engage in dialogue. As we talk over the problem and gather more information, we’re in a better position to ascertain the other person’s motive and intent.

If we find out that our initial impulse was mistaken (the other person’s motives are not hurtful), we’re in a good position to solve problems together. However, if we discover that their motives are hurtful toward us—perhaps they’re political or personal—instead of being trapped in a fight-or-flight reflex with our brain turned off by hot emotion, our mind is active and engaged and we’re in a better position to decide what to do about this potential enemy. All options ranging from ending the relationship and disengaging to escalating the problem up the chain of command are available to us.

Mastering your stories is NOT a positive mental attitude technique that assumes that everyone’s motives are good. It IS a set of skills that keep us from assuming that all people’s motives are bad and hurtful. All in all, this increases the probability of us getting what we really want.

Best Wishes,