Processes Aren’t Enough: What’s Needed is a Culture of Accountability

I’ve written in many proposals that “even the best processes will not succeed without the best and brightest to implement them.” While this statement is true on its face, underneath it is a broader question: Are the best processes and the best and brightest enough to make a team work?

Having worked on Capitol Hill, in the Federal Government, and for a wide variety of corporations, I’ve found that managers often believe that if they could just implement a newer, better set of processes, that this would somehow overcome conflicts and lead to improved productivity. That’s a great theory, but the reality is that people–and how they resolve conflict and determine accountability–take their cues from their organization’s leadership, and function best when they have processes in place to work through conflicts below upper management levels. According to Joseph Grenny, a New York Times best-selling author writing for the Harvard Business Review, has concluded that teams tend to be a) weakest when there is no accountability, b) mediocre when bosses are accountable, and c) high performance when colleagues manage their own performance problems with one another. Makes sense.

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Processes alone aren’t enough. There needs to be a universal culture of accountability that helps people engage one another at a real-world level.

Problem Avoidance Leads to Dysfunction

There’s a tendency in organizations to set up processes that (they hope) will make things work better, but without clear communication about expectations, context–and accountability–processes without context can lead to confusion and finger-pointing rather than improved efficiencies. The real challenge is to provide avenues and tools for addressing conflicts that inevitably arise in organizations. According to Grenny:

We’ve found that you can approximate the health of a relationship, a team and an organization by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems. The shorter the lag time, the faster problems get solved and the more the resolution enhances relationships. The longer the lag, the more room there is for mistrust, dysfunction, and more tangible costs to mount.

Okay, great; so how do we do this? Grenny recommends that organizations–and their leadership, primarily–consider implementing what I call “human processes” to improve accountability and resolve conflicts:

HBR Quote

Source: Harvard Business Review

Easier Said than Done, but Well Worth a Try

Changing how people interact with one another is hard. Changing how they accept accountability, escalate and resolve conflict, well, that’s even more difficult (when’s the last time you experienced a corporate “makeover” that actually helped people do these things consistently?). The concepts outlined above, however, are a good start, but all of them require buy-in from the top dogs in the organization. Here are some of my observations about the above:

Setting Expectations. Leaders should be transparent about what they expect from their reports (not opaque, making them “figure it out”). This takes some insight and humility–especially on the part of the leader. Personally, I don’t know too many people brave enough to call out the Boss on his/her action–unless they’ve got another offer lined up, but leaders who do this will likely garner respect from their team, at a minimum, even though it’s a tough issue to address.

Telling Stories. I like this a lot. Too many people talk in terms of lofty phrases and jargon that can mean different things to different people, rather than in real-world stories that people can relate to. Which of the following would resonate with you?

A. “We should all work according to the highest standards of excellence and professionalism toward the same goal, while respecting each other and maintaining accountability. Remember always put the customer first.”

B. “Jane here did an amazing job last week by doing a, b, and c, but it wasn’t easy. She realized that the level of effort for the project was going to take her (and the client) into the weekend to finish up–not what anyone wanted. Instead, she turned to Dave to help out, because he had the bandwidth and he’s done this kind of thing before, and he banged it out in a few hours. At the end of the day, the customer was so pleased that we got it done on time that they insisted she continue to be the lead Project Manager for next quarter. Kudos Jane–and to Dave, too. Job well done.”

Modeling Behavior. Taking a mature approach to dealing with conflict is critical for all employees, but especially for leaders, and I’d go one further: if leaders don’t do what they expect the rest of the company to do, what message does that send? Do as I say, but not as I do? This approach not only undermines morale, but creates an uneven playing field (without consistency, those who win are those who have the “secret handshake” with the boss).

Conflict Escalation. This last point is, to me, critical, but escalation policy that people can clearly understand in an organization is often tough–or non-existent. I’ve found that few people want to address problems directly, because conflict, in general, is to be avoided at all costs. The underlying assumption appears to be “if there’s a trouble, someone is being a bad employee and that’s not allowed.” The truth, of course, is more complex: people have different ways to doing things, and conflict is inevitable.  One way that people are familiar with is by escalating a problem via email by using “cc” to include an upper manager to let them know that there’s a problem. But in reality, this is a passive aggressive approach that is probably best avoided itself. Escalation as a “joint venture” makes a lot more sense to me, because it engages the “warring parties” to make them think about the conflict together before escalating–this in itself could be a way to force people to resolve the problem before they bring it to the attention of a higher up. This is, at its core, a mindful approach to work, something that I’ve written about before.

Cheers and thanks for taking the time to check out this post.

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Greg Moreau
Michael & Associates, LLC
Award-winning proposals for nearly 20 years.