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Organizational Behavior: The Myth of Accountability and the Parent-Child Relationship

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Read our related article:
Building Teams: Prescriptive Advice for Building Great Teams

writerMaking some observations

The man in the hole.

If you grew up in Chicago – or perhaps any big ciy for that matter – maybe you came across this scene.  Walk around Chicago and you are bound to see people working in a manhole.  Usually, there are a couple of city workers standing around looking down into the manhole.  There is one guy in the manhole doing the work – sewer, electrical, or whatever.

What are the guys doing who are looking down watching?  Those people are the supervisors.  One of the roles of the Supervisor is to make sure the man in the manhole does the work.  So he is watching.  enforcing compliance, compelling, the man to do the work.

Sometimes another city worker drives around the city and stops by the work being done in the manhole.  One of the roles of this person is to make sure the supervisor is doing his job.  It could be the case that the supervisor has decided to take the whole team on some personal errands, or maybe they are sleeping in the truck.

So, the city checks up on the supervisors – watching the supervisors to make sure they are watching the man in the manhole doing the work.

The Role of the Media

The city of Chicago has two major newspapers – the Tribune and the Sun-Times.  These newspapers send out reporters to watch – just in case the city is not watching the supervisors watch the workers – to ensure compliance to the work to the benefit of the Chicago citizens/taxpayers – for which this City government has as its prime mission – or supposedly so.

The City media  watching the City local government- watching the city supervisors – watching the city worker in the manhole has lead to some interesting stories in both newspapers.  Stories of city workers sleeping on the job, city workers doing personal errands on city time using city trucks and cars, city workers not showing up for work when their time sheet says otherwise – these are all too common stories.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

We recently wrote a posting on a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Lencioni.  We titled the article in a more positive light in order to stress that you want to avoid all these problems in the first place by carefully choosing team members so you won’t need Lencioni to tell you how to get out of the mess you got yourself in to

You will need Lencionis book to tell you how to get out of a mess when you have the wrong team members on a team and lack the courage to remove these team members before you find yourself in the deadly synergy of embrace of the Five Dysfunctions.

A dim view of human behavior and responsibility

But what is this really?  The media watches the City.  The City watches the City Supervisors.  The City Supervisors watch the man in the manhole doing the work.  How much productive work is actually happening for the benefit of the citizens of the City of Chicago?

How much effort is going towards an activity of “watching”.  Watching to ensure compliance of what the worker was asked to do. 

This whole scene of a need for a “chain of watchers” to ensure that people do their job exposes an implicit dim view of human nature.

More than one hundred years of organizational history have worked to reinforce the myth that others have an ability and responsibility for enforcing accountability. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have built organizations with a prevailing philosophy that adults won’t choose accountability on their own and so they must be bribed or coerced. Organizations have spent enormous energy and resources hammering home the message that someone else will be responsible for your accountability, the sub-text being that you are absolved from that obligation.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, often called the father of scientific management theory, was among the first to develop and fine-tune this philosophy… Taylor espoused the idea that the “first class man”—he who was better and more efficient at performing a task—should be appointed to watch other workers. These “first class men” were given the responsibility to design and organize the work and to make sure plans were followed. This established a hierarchy where one person does the work and another is responsible for making sure the work gets done. Even today, a key role of management responsibility is to “make sure” and hold people accountable.

That kind of thinking and the organizational systems constructed around it have contributed heavily to today’s parent– child culture in the workplace…  Work-place conversations have an abundance of parent–child messages that say “we don’t think you can choose to be accountable, so we are going to make sure you are.” We have built cultures of compliance believing that was enough, and for nearly a century, we have achieved success.

 The Parent-Child Relationship in Organizations

The quote above is from the book  Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Paperback) by Jamie Showkeir and Maren Showkeir.

The upshot of this book is that the framework described above is really about a Parent-Child relationship.  The Manager checking up on employees is more like a Parents relationship to a Child than two adults who take adult responsibility for thier work.

The message in short is: “Grow up“!

In the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the author makes these suggestions to over come the team dysfunction of lack of accountability by a team or team members

  1.  
    1. Publication of Goals and Standards A good way to make it easier for team members to hold one another accountable is to clarify publicly exactly what the team needs to achieve, who needs to deliver what, and how everyone must behave in order to succeed. The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.
    2. Simple and Regular Progress Reviews. Team members should regularly communicate with one another, either verbally or in written form, about how they feel their teammates are doing against stated objectives and standards. Relying on them to do so on their own, with no clear expectations or structure, is inviting the potential for the avoidance of accountability.
    3. Team Rewards. By shifting rewards away from individual performance to team achievement, the team can create a culture of accountability.

The author plays into the hands of “Authentic Conversations”

Here are the three recommendations re/written in the Showkeir model of Parent-Child Relationships

  1. The way to deal with lack of accountability is to clarify who needs to do what in writing – the parent provides written instructions to the team and individual team members.  Put a note in their lunch bag, clip a note on to their jacket, remind them on a regular basis.
  2. Communicatete regularly.  I don’t trust you and I can’t trust you.  Here is a cell phone, after you get done with gym class call me.  Call me after math class, band practice, and before you leave for home so I can watch your progress.
  3. Team Rewards.  If you don’t do what we ask you will get no desert after dinner, you will not be able to play your XBOX 360 games, you will have to go to bed early, and no myspace or facebook tonight for you.

Grow Up!

The message of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Paperback) is so simple.  People simply need to “Grow Up” and act like adults and create cultures of adult-adult conversations

Take responsibility and commitment to what your job role is without the need for a parent to look over your shoulder and treat you as a child – so simple. 

Let’s get this on the table right away. The notion that you can hold other people accountable is a myth, a dangerous illusion that denies a fundamental reality of human existence. People always have a choice about their beliefs and actions. You choose to be accountable—it can’t be forced upon you. When you continue to have conversations about holding others accountable, you are only perpetuating the myth and the parent–child dynamic.

The question bears repeating: How much greater are our chances of success if we create cultures where people choose commitment for the good of the whole? Where our conversations about holding others accountable are transformed to conversations about individual commitment and the ways we hold ourselves accountable?

If you don’t believe it, ask yourself this basic question: “What is best for this enterprise—people who are treated and behave like children, or adults who are resilient and capable of responding to difficult circumstances?” The answer is so obvious that it makes the question seem ridiculous. Yet organizations are still deeply entrenched in workplace philosophies, policies, and procedures that reinforce parent–child conversations and cultures without realizing the cost to the business.

and about the Culture of an organization

James A. Autry, businessman, author, and poet, says, “We do make things true by what we say. . . . Things and people are what we call them, because in the simplest terms, we are what we say, and others are what we say about them.”

Simply put, a conversation is an exchange between two or more individuals, but that simple definition obscures a conversation’s complexity. Words and language are powerful tools, and conversations are so commonplace in our daily lives that we don’t pause to contemplate their inherent power.

First, conversations reveal what we see in the world and what meaning we attach to what we see. Second, as Autry says, we name things and create reality. Third, we invite others to see what we see, the way we see it. And fourth, through conversations we either sustain or change the meaning of what we see. All these things play a commanding role in creating and defining an organization’s culture.

The term “culture” refers to the universal capacity that human beings have to classify, codify, and communicate their experiences symbolically. In other words, culture dictates our beliefs, behavior, language, and social interaction. Nonverbal communication and unwritten rules play a large role here.

Edgar Schein, a professor at the MIT Sloan School for management and the man credited with coining the term “corporate culture,” talks about culture as being a pattern of shared basic assumptions. Schein defined organizational culture as “the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.” He wrote that these norms “prescribe appropriate behavior by employees and control the behavior of organizational members towards one another.”

Culture tells us what is acceptable and unacceptable. It alerts us to whether it is okay to show up a little late for a meeting, how we should be dressed when we arrive, and whether bringing up difficult issues in the room will be viewed favorably. It influences how we treat each other, talk to each other, and is a factor in the way we view and interact with our coworkers and customers.

Culture shows up as a similarity in the way people behave at work, regardless of their rank, title, or serial number. As Margaret J. Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science, “I am often struck by eerily similar behaviors exhibited by people in an organization, whether I’m meeting with a factory floor employee or a senior executive. I might detect a recurring penchant for secrecy or for openness, for name-calling or for thoughtfulness. These recurring patterns of behavior are what many call the culture of an organization.”

 But so many organizations struggle unsuccessfully with individuals and team members that remain unaccountable to the team, the organization, and to the constituency which they (supposedly) serve. 

In the last analysis its about the culture of an organization and the leaders that create it, sustain it, and transform it – for good or for bad.

 Resources

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:  A Leadership fable.
Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Paperback)

Here is the text from our original posting on accountability.
Now read this again from the perspective of the model of Parent-Child relationship model.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of Accountability

This dysfunction is closely related to the dysfunction of  “fear of conflict”.  Fear of conflict is going to naturally exacerbate this necessary and unavoidable task of holding people accountable for their behaviors, results, deliverable, and commitments. 

Fear of conflict and avoidance of accountability is going to form a deadly synergy that will reinfornce both dysfunctions.  Who will really lose?  The organization in which this team resides.  In this, not holding team members accountable trades personal comfort of not holding folks accountable in favor of undermining the organization.

Here is what Lencioni has to say

In the context of teamwork, however, it refers specifically to the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team.

The essence of this dysfunction is the unwillingness of team members to tolerate the interpersonal discomfort that accompanies calling a peer on his or her behavior and the more general tendency to avoid difficult conversations. Members of great teams overcome these natural inclinations, opting instead to “enter the danger” with one another.

In fact, team members who are particularly close to one another sometimes hesitate to hold one another accountable precisely because they fear jeopardizing a valuable personal relationship. Ironically, this only causes the relationship to deteriorate as team members begin to resent one another for not living up to expectations and for allowing the standards of the group to erode.

As politically incorrect as it sounds, the most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure. More than any policy or system, there is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates that motivates people to improve their performance.

Lencioni  makes a big assumption here.  That is, that peer pressure is an effective method of making people accountable.  This presupposes that team member respect other members on the team.

In actual practice, in teams that are ‘assembled” based on availability and little else, it is a leap that team members respect each other unless this is tested and validated. 

Peer pressure does not work if team members do not respect each other.  Whether peer pressure works or not on a team could be used as a measure of the respect of team members to each other, how much a team member is committed to team decisions, and whether the “unaccountable” team member has the best interest of the organization as the highest priority over self-interest.

Suggestions for Overcoming Avoidance of Accountability

Publication of Goals and Standards A good way to make it easier for team members to hold one another accountable is to clarify publicly exactly what the team needs to achieve, who needs to deliver what, and how everyone must behave in order to succeed. The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.

Simple and Regular Progress Reviews. Team members should regularly communicate with one another, either verbally or in written form, about how they feel their teammates are doing against stated objectives and standards. Relying on them to do so on their own, with no clear expectations or structure, is inviting the potential for the avoidance of accountability.

Team Rewards. By shifting rewards away from individual performance to team achievement, the team can create a culture of accountability.

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Written by frrl

January 6, 2009 at 8:06 pm

One Response

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  1. This blog is excellent. Of course I am biased, having co-authored “Authentic Conversations”. You have nailed the distinctions we draw and the work necessary to change organizations to places that achieve results and where people find meaning and purpose at work.

    Maren and I are honored that you found our work worthy and cited it as significant. In one fashion or another we have devoted that last 25 years to helping organizations move in this direction through our consulting.

    You can learn more about our work at http://www.henning-showkeir.com.

    Thank you.

    jamie showkeir

    January 7, 2009 at 10:51 pm


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