Deborah Mackin

Article Summary:

How to build accountable, responsible employees in the workplace (Part 2 of 2).

Growing Responsibility and Accountability in the Workplace: Part 2

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Even with the application of Situational Leadership, it is not enough to drive accountability because we are often stuck with D2s and D3s whom we would rather fire than try to change. We have to pair another strategy, called Performance Management, to stop the behaviors that are problematic and move those that are valued forward.

Tool 3: Performance Management: Applying Natural Consequences to Improve Accountability
A D4 is a terrific employee whom we want to challenge and keep moving along, while our D2 is a self-proclaimed know-it-all who is ready to leave ten minutes early and never seems to put in a full day’s work. “Moving” the D4s behavior and “stopping” the D2s behavior is what Performance Management is all about. In order to build accountability, both need to experience the natural consequences of their own actions, positive and negative. How do we make those natural consequences occur in the workplace?

Many managers are very reluctant to praise positive behavior for fear it will go to the employee’s head and correct problem behavior for fear of conflicts. As a result, the manager focuses on setting goals, crafting mission and vision statements, and completing job descriptions as a way to get correct behavior. These items are what are called “antecedents.” They come before the desired behavior. Aubrey Daniels, through his research in performance management, found that antecedents only cause behavior to occur once or twice. Furthermore, he discovered that it is only the consistent pairing of antecedents with consequences that drive behavior change and accountability.

Consequences are defined as the natural outcomes that “move” or “stop” behavior.

Consequences that “move” behavior:

Positive reinforcement
An individual gets what he/she wants. Not that the individual gets what we think they want (e.g., praise, a luncheon, a movie ticket). For positive reinforcement to work it must be personal; in other words, what motivates you will not necessarily motivate me. When the employee is given “what he/she wants,” it will build commitment and from commitment comes accountability. Timing is critically important here as a long delay between behavior and reinforcement will make the reinforcement meaningless.

Negative reinforcement
An employee avoids what they don’t want. The most common form of negative reinforcement is to introduce fear into the environment. “Better get that report that John wants on his desk by 4 or he won’t be happy.” The employee “moves” his/her behavior in order to avoid the anticipated wrath of John. These fear messages can be very subtle – body language in a meeting, how a report is placed in an in-box, reading between the lines of emails, not returning phone messages. It’s important to realize that fear will cause behavior to move (in order to avoid the projected consequences), however, the focus is on compliance, not commitment. The individual performs the minimums to avoid punishment.

The definitions here are very important because positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily mean praise or gifts or applause. The person must get something that they truly desire. For many people, this could mean time with the manager to talk about personal growth, an afternoon off to attend a child’s soccer game, or being assigned to a prestigious project. Likewise, negative reinforcement introduced an outcome that the person would like to avoid. Positive reinforcement will build commitment; negative reinforcement will only build compliance — both, however, will move behavior. Positive reinforcement builds accountability; negative reinforcement builds avoidance of accountability and a desire to “play it safe.”

Consequences that will “stop” behavior

Here the employee “doesn’t get something he/she wants” such as attention, recognition or special privileges. Omission is often used effectively when someone is doing behaviors that focus on getting attention or inappropriate recognition, such as clowning around, interrupting, being aggressive or sarcastic, and lateness. By omitting reinforcement, the behavior stops because the person was looking for attention and doesn’t get it. The best example is of a two or three-year old who has a tantrum in the store. If the mom or dad keeps telling the child to be quiet and admonishing that he or she will go to the car, the child is getting lots of attention (albeit scolding) and the behavior is being positive reinforced (I get what I want). If, on the other hand, the parent walks away and omits reinforcement, the child will fuss for another minute or two and the stop to go find the parent. Ironically, adults act the same way sometimes: those who seek attention by complaining, blaming, requiring lots of reminders to get work in on time, lateness, interrupting, etc.

The employee “gets what he/she doesn’t want.” Punishment is based on getting something we don’t want. Typically, organizations use progressive discipline to administer punishment. However, we could be much more creative with punishment than we typically are. There are many things employees don’t like to do (scribe notes, facilitate meetings, do paperwork, monotonous tasks, make phone calls, even serve on a team). All of these, if applied as punishment, would cause problem behavior to stop.

Accountability must never be used as a device for placing blame or designating a scapegoat. Developing accountability does not mean relinquishing accountability on management’s part. It must be perceived as a partnership. In the beginning of a group’s development, management usually carries the lion’s share of the accountability burden, absorbing the brunt of any disappointments. However, as the group matures, members expect to be held more accountable for their own results.

Accountability begins at home, working on the messages you send out to others. Do you identify ways to hand off meaningful activities to employees using the RACI chart? Do you know the developmental levels of your employees and actively work them around to D4s? Do you appropriately use positive and negative reinforcement to “move” behavior and omission and punishment to “stop” behavior? Would some “redirection” conversations help to get a few people back on track?

By position, management has responsibility and accountability. A wise manager knows, however, that he or she can’t do it all and will fail if they try. Getting others to pitch in and accept accountability will be an enormous load off the manager’s back. To succeed, the manager must use effective tools to build an environment of accountability.

Deborah Mackin is founder and president of New Directions Consulting, Inc. and author of teambuilding books, including the 2nd edition of the Team Building Tool Kit (Fall, 2007). As an international consultant and trainer for 20+ years, Deborah is a widely recognized authority on teams, quality service, productivity, and leadership. For more information, visit New Directions Consulting.

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