Crucial Accountability QA

How to Foster Accountability in a Tight-Knit Culture

Dear David,

Our organization is non-profit with a family-oriented culture. Unfortunately, we act like a family that has no accountability. Instead of holding people to account, our approach is to avoid and dumb down. No one is ever fired for poor performance. People arrive late, fail to complete time-sensitive tasks, and chat a lot—I mean they sit and chat for hours. Meetings don’t start on time because we wait for stragglers. I could go on. Those of us who have a work ethic and a sense of responsibility have to pick up the slack. When we took our concerns to management, they wrote out a list of service values and code of civility, rather than directly address the performance issues. Is there anything I can do?

Wanting Accountability Tactics

Dear Wanting,

Thanks for a challenging question that a lot of us can relate to. Maybe we don’t work in a non-profit, but we struggle with a culture that is low on accountability. Or we work under a management team that seems more interested in keeping the peace than in improving performance. I’ll suggest some ways to begin having an impact.

Partner with a Leader. It sounds as if you are not in a supervisory position. Changing these norms will require you to partner with someone who is. You need a leader who is likely to share your concerns, who has the skill and autonomy to try these ideas with their team, and who will be able to influence other leaders through their success. Don’t expect the right leader to immediately volunteer for this pathfinder role. They may have other concerns that are equally or more important than yours. Finding and nurturing a partnership will require listening, fact-finding, patience, and compromise.

Focus on the Fool’s Choice. We humans are quick to see decisions as either/or, even when they aren’t. In Crucial Conversations we call these Fool’s Choices. Examples include thinking we need to choose between peace and honesty or between winning and losing. In your case, the Fool’s Choice is between holding people accountable and treating them with caring respect. The way you break free of a Fool’s Choice is to ask, “How can we do both?” In this case: “How can we hold people accountable while still showing them our caring respect?” This is the question you and your leader partner will need to address and answer.

Turn Purpose into Measurable Goals. It sounds as if your organization is using “service values” as a substitute for measurable results. Unfortunately, these service values have become minimum standards of behavior, rather than challenging targets to achieve.

Consider using a method called Strategy On A Page (SOAP) to cascade your broad purpose and vision down to measurable goals. Create a SOAP that details the links between your organization’s ambitions (what it wants to achieve in the world) and the measurable results that departments and individuals must achieve for this ambition to be realized. Identifying measurable results that must be achieved provides an immediate reason to hold people accountable.

Identify Problem Behaviors. Involve the people affected by the problems you describe (lateness, chatting, etc.) in identifying problem behaviors. The goal is to have the group agree on the behavior changes they want to see within their team. A powerful way to involve them is to use a Start, Stop, and Continue exercise. This exercise asks the group to identify new behaviors they need to Start doing in order to achieve their measurable results, existing behaviors they need to Stop doing if they are to achieve these results, and existing behaviors they need to Continue doing to achieve the results. Notice that these behaviors might be related to your organization’s “service values” but will be far more focused. Document these behaviors, create posters that describe them, and ask everyone to sign these posters as their commitment to change.

Build New Skills and Norms. We ask for 200 percent accountability for the behavior changes the team has identified. This means that team members are 100 percent accountable for their own behaviors and also 100 percent accountable for the behaviors of their colleagues. Instead of leaders being the only ones to hold others accountable, everyone in the team holds everyone else accountable.

Provide Leadership Support. When it comes to accountability, follow-through is everything. Work with your leader partner to identify formal and informal leaders who can help team members hold each other accountable. These leaders will play a champion role: coaching people who don’t feel skilled enough to hold a peer or boss to account, pushing people who don’t want to hold others accountable, and stepping in when an accountability discussion goes poorly or results in retaliation.

I hope these ideas give you a place to start. What have other readers seen that works? Please comment with your ideas below.


Crucial Conversations QA

The Painful Truth about Silence and Violence

Dear Joseph,

I took the Style Under Stress test in the Crucial Conversations book during a group discussion class. I was upset and offended that I was classified as “violent” in my communications. Everyone else in the class tended more toward “silence.” We concluded that “silence” was better than “violence.” I was the odd man out and felt embarrassed. I considered leaving the class at that point. I can see that I have been aggressive in my conversations, but not violent. I do not see labeling me as violent as being helpful. Why did you feel it was important to use such an extreme word to encompass any kind of aggressive tendency?

Confused and Offended

Dear Confused,

You wanted an author, now you have one! Over the years, we have had a number of people react the way you have to our decision to use “violence” as the aggression category name in the Style Under Stress test. I appreciate that you stayed, and hope that you benefited from doing so. I am sad to hear we almost lost the chance to share our ideas with you because of your reaction to our word choice. Thanks for the chance to explain.

Provoke Reflection

Our primary reason for choosing this loaded term is to provoke reflection. For some time, I have marveled at the fact that the human consequences of various forms of aggressive communication do not correlate with the magnitude of the aggression. For example, a boss who simply talks condescendingly to a direct report can inflict enormous psychological harm—leaving her feeling inadequate and traumatized. On the other hand, a couple who both come from families who yelled a lot growing up might be able to rage at one another and emerge much less bruised. What matters is not the caliber of the verbal weapon, but the principle it employs. “Violence,” in our way of seeing it, is any attempt to use coercion to achieve my goal. It is a decision I make to use my superior size, position, vocabulary, confidence, or other asset against you in order to get what I want. We believe that the decision to act on this principle has serious moral implications, and our goal in using this word was to invite deeper reflection about that choice. For those who use it out of habit, or due to modeling in their childhood home, we hope that our deliberate use of this term helps them reassess whether this practice is consistent with their own values.

Honor the Wounded

We recoil from the thought of sanitizing this word by using a less value-laden term because we think it masks both the moral truth of aggressive practices, and dishonors those who suffer from them. Interestingly, I have never been pressed by someone with an aggressive boss, spouse, parent or neighbor to soften this word. When we think about how others affect us, this word seems to capture the experience better than a more academic reference.

Unfortunate Consequence

I regret that your group inferred from the labels “Silence” and “Violence” that “Silence” is somehow functionally or morally superior. I would vehemently disagree. Many of the worst horrors in the world were the consequence of the silence of many. Genocide. Workplace injuries and deaths. Toxic work environments. Immoral policies. Unsafe products. Interestingly, the founders of the great world religions are often exemplars of those who speak truth to power. And yet, generations later, worshipers mistakenly equate deference with righteousness—passivity with rectitude. Please know, as an author, this is not the message I intended to send by supporting our use of these two terms. They both cause immense damage. They both destroy relationships. They both are frequently animated by selfishness and dishonesty. I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. Or at least, help you understand where we are coming from.


Crucial Conversations QA

How To Help Your Loved One Face a Bully

Dear Steve,

My husband is being bullied at work by a manager and feels he has only two choices: put up with the bullying until he retires or report it and go through a long process that will result in emotional exhaustion and potentially worse bullying. We have seen other members report bullying with the appropriate HR channels, only to leave their jobs in debt and depressed. I am an HR manager with a private company but feel powerless to advise my husband. He has limited job opportunities due to his age. I feel as stuck as my husband. What conversations should I be having?

Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

It’s only slightly more painful to feel stuck than to watch someone you care about experience the same thing. Some years back, my father was being bullied at work. I was surprised that anyone would bully him. He was a good employee and very likeable. He also was capable of dealing with tough situations, so I figured he’d be able to work things out. But things didn’t go as I’d expected.

His attitude toward work soon changed. Where he once found a sense of community and fulfillment, he now felt isolated and disengaged. And his new demeanor wasn’t limited to the workplace; he started bringing it home with him to share with the family.

The good news is that things finally did resolve. But it took a toll on someone I consider a strong, capable human being, and whom I love. Here are some lessons I learned by watching my father go through this experience.

First, these situations always resolve. Sometimes they work themselves out, and other times they require significant intervention. But they do resolve. There is hope. For those stuck in a seeming “unresolvable” circumstance like this, the question you need to be asking yourself is “How can I participate in resolving this situation?”

When bullied we feel cornered, powerless, trapped—stuck! And when we feel stuck, we tend to react in ways that make the problem worse. This is why people commonly recommend “just live with it.” It’s why we often resort to silence in crucial moments. In the case of my father, he decided to “gut it out.” He would respond to the bully with kindness and respect. Yet every time he showed kindness, the bully further tormented him. And so, the situation worsened.

As you might imagine, this had a debilitating effect on my dad. It was hard for me to watch. He started to lose hope that the situation would change, or that he could do anything to make a difference. In the end, he stopped looking for alternative approaches and, in essence, gave up any semblance of control.

Relief finally came when he realized he still had control over how he responded to the bully. He came to understand that just because his first option for dealing with the bully didn’t work didn’t mean he couldn’t try something else. For him, realizing he still had a choice made all the difference.

I found out some time later that my mom was the driving factor in this process of regaining hope. She would listen as my dad would describe what he was experiencing. She’d empathize, ask questions, and help him evaluate possible solutions (this my dad found most helpful). Having a thinking partner helped him process options more objectively and helped him adjust his approaches when they weren’t working. But the various approaches weren’t as important as realizing that there were alternative approaches available to him.

My mom soon realized that while my dad felt support at home, he didn’t at work. He felt isolated and alone—the perfect conditions for a bully. She also realized that in order for my dad to retain hope and resolve the situation, he would need to build a support network at work.

Perhaps this is how you can help your husband.

Are there co-workers who feel similarly that can help? My team once consulted at a hospital where the nurses came up with a key word they could use when being bullied. When someone said the word, all the nurses around would immediately move to the side of the person being bullied to support them.

Are there other leaders in your husband’s organization that could help? Would filing a complaint with HR, even an anonymous one, be the first step . . . or even the needed corroborating fact? There is strength in numbers, so help your husband explore ways he can band together with his peers.

Think of it like this: (1) the situation can be resolved, (2) there are always options, (3) enlist supporters.

I hope these suggestions help you as you consider how to work with and support your husband through this difficult situation.

Best of luck,