Crucial Accountability QA

Seeking Accountability

The following article was originally published on August 4, 2004.

Dear Ron,

I lead a faith-based, non-profit organization after fifteen years as a mid-level executive in the wireless industry. Working with board members and volunteers is tough sometimes. My difficulty comes in creating safety and expressing my concerns when people do not deliver on their commitments. Given the volunteer nature of both parties, I want to appreciate their desire to serve, not alienate them, and yet I want to let them know things that need to be done are not getting done. Can you help me?

Seeking Accountability

Dear Seeking,

Talking through tough issues with someone in a volunteer organization is a lot like dealing with peers or someone at a higher level in any organization. You cannot rely on position, power, or the threat of losing employment to get the other person’s attention. If you are too heavy-handed, you risk creating offense; if you sugarcoat or water down your communication, you minimize the problem. What to do?

Consider the following tips:

Start with Heart. Make sure you go into the conversation with the right end in mind–you want to solve the problem of someone not keeping a commitment in a way that preserves and enhances the working relationship. You don’t want to shame. You don’t want to make the other person feel bad or wrong.

Master Your Stories. Ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person not keep his or her commitment?” It might be a motivational problem (he or she didn’t WANT to do it) or an ability problem (he or she wasn’t ABLE to do it). Which is the case? You don’t know! Don’t assume the worst; don’t tell yourself a villain story. Be curious, not furious.

Get Unstuck. Decide at what level the conversation needs to be held: content (first time), pattern (it’s happened before), or relationship (how it affects the trust and respect between the two of you). If the problem is a pattern of a behavior that you’ve dealt with before, don’t just talk about the current instance. Talk about the fact that it keeps happening and discuss what you can do to keep it from continuing. If it’s starting to affect how the two of you work together, address that issue, and discuss what you’d like from your working relationship.

STATE your Path. Start with the facts of what’s going on, not your conclusions about why it’s happening. An effective way of sharing the facts is to compare what was promised with what happened. Don’t make accusations (“You didn’t keep your promise.”) Don’t make statements of emotion (“You make me so mad!”). Instead, try, “you told me the report would be ready by Monday. It’s now Tuesday and I still haven’t received the report. What happened?”

Move to Action. Remember at the end of the conversation to document “Who does What by When,” to clarify the plan going forward. This will ensure that everyone knows what is expected, and help them understand what they’ll be accountable for. Be sure to follow up. This will still be a difficult conversation, but handling it with these principles and skills will increase the probability of solving problems in a way that builds both respect and your relationship.

Best of luck,

Kerrying On

Thanksgiving: Our Second Favorite Holiday

Thanksgiving is an interesting phenomenon. It always comes in at number two in the holiday popularity polls, just behind Christmas. That’s a pretty high ranking when you consider how humble the holiday is. It doesn’t come with the ghoulish decorating or the fun-filled house-egging that we enjoy every Halloween. It doesn’t come with the raucous parties of New Year’s or the exhilarating explosives of Independence Day. And yet, year in and year out, Americans rank Thanksgiving as their almost favorite holiday. If aliens were to beam in from another galaxy and look in on earthlings bowing their heads at a table, they would surely conclude that this group’s gathering had all the makings of a funeral.

And yet people love Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. For years, I assumed it was the scrumptious food that gave the holiday its appeal. Our family’s chefs, mostly women (as was often the case in the 50s), competed to see who could prepare the best dishes, so the food was always spectacular. The men competed for the title of “Biggest Eater,” creating a susceptibility to heart disease and diabetes that has been a family tradition for decades.

And don’t forget the fun and lively debate over which foods should be included in the sacred meal. There are always some dishes that are falling out of fashion. My parents fought over who got to eat the turkey giblets. (Shiver—gag.) My grandparents adored mincemeat pie, my mom and dad liked it, and we kids never even gave it a taste. After all, it is called mincemeat pie.

Then it struck me that neither food nor food trends give Thanksgiving its charm; it’s the gratitude the holiday inspires coupled with the time people spend together that makes the day so special. Of course, our family spent time together during all of the major holidays, but Thanksgiving seemed to offer more “quality time.” Here’s where it gets tricky. As everyone knows, time is measured by planetary movements and resides in some weird fourth dimension that can’t be understood by anyone who doesn’t carry a slide rule. Fortunately, quality time is easier to understand—or so says my neighbor. According to him, quality time is any time spent with loved ones on the beach at Maui.

I think he’s onto something. At our house growing up, we’d finish eating the Thanksgiving meal embarrassingly fast and, since nobody wanted to help with the cleanup, we’d quickly escape to various corners of the house where family members would talk in small groups until three hours later when we’d repeat the cycle. During all this conversing we’d enjoy what I consider to be genuine quality time. We’d engage in the art of conversation across generations. For example, one Thanksgiving, while keeping a safe distance from the kitchen by hiding with Granddad in the den, I asked him what the scariest thing he had ever experienced was. I asked him this particular question because I was thirteen, he was seventy-seven, and talking about my crush on Mouseketeer Annette Funicello seemed out of the question.

Grandpa then shared what he called “a real hair raiser.” Once, while crossing the country in a railroad boxcar (“It was legal back in those days,” he explained), he and three strangers were rumbling along minding their own business when two of them suddenly broke into a knife fight and the larger fellow killed the smaller one. From there, Grandpa vividly described how he and the other non-fighter subdued the stabber and ended up serving as star witnesses in the subsequent trial.

“They didn’t have a hotel in the small town where the trial was held,” Grandpa said, “so they put us up in the town jail and fed us homemade meals prepared by the locals who treated us as celebrities.” Grandpa went on to tell the fascinating details of this experience while I hung on his every word.

We alternated telling stories of this nature while playing cards. When gathered around a card table we still talked, but the tenor and tone of the conversation changed dramatically. Adults and pre-teens alike engaged in rapid-fire patter where everyone practiced the art of bluffing, teasing, and wisecracking. Kids even picked up a few social skills along the way. I remember Mom once called Dad a “dirty rat” when he stuck her with the queen of spades. I called my grandma a “dirty rat” for doing the same thing and quickly learned that not all expressions were suited to all people.

These kinds of educational and bonding conversations went on for hours every Thanksgiving, turning the holiday into a Patterson family favorite. I suspect this is true for most people who hold a similar gathering. But I wonder how long this popularity will last. I fear that Thanksgiving conversations might be decreasing in popularity, just like the once-beloved giblets and mincemeat pie. With the rise of tweets, texts, and posts—along with all the fun to be had playing video games (where talking is largely replaced by thumb moving)—only time will tell whether electronic equipment will diminish the art of conversation, and along with it, our beloved Thanksgiving.

This I know for sure. Our fourteen grandkids will arrive at our home Thanksgiving Day toting all manner of smart phones and other gadgets that will appear on the surface to be a lot more fun than talking with an old codger such as I. Our home is also loaded with gaming platforms and big-screens that might appear to be a much faster pathway to fun than conversing face-to-face with people who don’t even tweet. Nevertheless, I’m prepared to do what it takes to keep Thanksgiving high in the holiday rankings. I have a boatload of engaging anecdotes and clever remarks at the ready. I hope the same is true for you. And if I need to, I can bring in the heavy artillery. I have a story that illuminates how at age fourteen, my buddies and I were almost eaten by sharks. It’s a real hair raiser.

Influencer QA

Living with a Hoarder?

Dear David,

My husband and I have been together for about five years. While I noticed his tendency for piles around his own place prior to our marriage, this propensity has gotten much worse since we have been married. I’m no neatnik, but there is an uncomfortable level of clutter in our home; I have to walk around several stacks of stuff just to get to our bathroom. How do you confront a hoarder that you otherwise love and respect?

Drowning in My Own Home

Dear Drowning,

As I began to read your note I was imagining the messy housemates my wife and I have had over the years. But then you used the word “hoarder,” and described yourself as “drowning in your own home . . .” You are obviously in a much tougher spot than I first thought—and with someone you love. My heart goes out to you.

A Pack Rat or a Hoarder? I want to start with this distinction. If your husband is a pack rat, he can be reasoned with. He may want to hold on to things, and may need some time, but he has perspective. He’ll have some prized possessions that he won’t want to lose, but he won’t become anxious or emotional about losing the less important items.

However, if your husband is a hoarder, he will become anxious and feel threatened by losing anything. He won’t have a sense of proportion between more and less valuable possessions. Another clue that your husband is a hoarder is the impact on your home. If hallways and rooms no longer serve their normal function—if the stacks of stuff make it hard to get around—it indicates that your husband is a hoarder.

Hoarders Need Professional Help. Hoarding is commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and requires treatment from a mental health professional. Professional treatment often combines medications (SRI—Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and cognitive behavior therapy. The success rate of this combination of treatments is quite good.

Getting a Hoarder to Treatment. How do you get your husband to admit his problem and agree to enter treatment? I’d suggest an approach called Motivational Interviewing. This approach recognizes that you can’t give your husband a “motivational transplant.” You can’t give him your motivation; he has to develop his own. The key to success is to create a safe environment where your husband can explore his own motivations for changing.

Below are three principles you can use to create this psychological safety:

• Ambivalence is normal.
• People have a right to make their own choices.
• Nothing will happen until the person is ready to change.

I’ll illustrate Motivational Interviewing with a technique Michael Pantalon uses in his book, Instant Influence. Ask your husband a question similar to the one below:

“How interested are you in getting some professional help? Rate your interest on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all interested and 10 means very interested.”

Make sure he gives you a number. If he responds with a 1, then ask what it would take for him to give it a 2. This gets him to tell you what he needs before he’ll be ready. The most common answer will be greater than 1. If he picks a 2 or higher, then ask him why he didn’t pick a lower number. This gets him to reveal that he does have some motivation to get help. Make It Safe for him to explore the reasons behind this motivation. Often, he will begin to convince himself of the need for change.

Use All Six Sources of Influence™. Our research here at VitalSmarts shows that change is far more likely when you combine multiple sources of influence. While I would not use our Six Source Strategy instead of professional treatment, I think it can be a powerful aid. Think of ways you can apply all Six Sources of Influence to help your husband change.

• Source 1—Personal Motivation: Get your husband to describe long-term goals for your home and your relationship. Then encourage him to see how his current behavior won’t get him to his own goals. Emphasize safety and autonomy; he needs to own this change project. Seek to build engagement and a collaborative focus.
• Source 2—Personal Ability: Work with your husband to establish guidelines for what the house looks like and when a possession will be relinquished. Remember, the more he is the one creating the guidelines, the more he will own them. Create these guidelines up front instead of making a separate decision about each possession. Begin with guidelines for the least-valuable possessions, and then work up to more controversial items.
• Source 3—Social Motivation: Avoid setting yourself up as a nag. Instead, get your husband to agree on days and times when he will clean up areas and reduce possessions. For example, he could set aside a half hour every Wednesday at 8pm. That makes the calendar and the clock the cue, instead of putting it all on you.
• Source 4—Social Ability: Work together. Be a coach, not an enforcer. Let your husband make the decisions, and then you can take the actions—such as donating, selling, or discarding the possession. Make it as easy for him as you can.
• Source 5—Structural Motivation: My wife and I use the simple rule that we can’t bring something into our condo until we get rid of something else to make room. A rule like this can create rewards for getting rid of things.
• Source 6—Structural Ability: Work with your husband to create a checklist he can use to track and monitor his progress. This checklist could include “no stacks on the floor, no broken items in the house, etc.” Make the items as specific as possible so little judgment is involved.

I hope this is helpful. Your husband needs you now more than ever.

Best Wishes,