Employees Not Accountable at Work? They probably have a good reason—3 ways to find out

bigstock-Blame-25179125Accountability, accountability, accountability.  It’s an issue that comes up time and again as leaders and HR professionals think about the one underlying challenge in their organizations that holds performance back.  It’s a silent killer that operates below the surface in organizations and it’s tough to address.

A best-selling business book (and one that I had never heard of until earlier this month) addresses a key piece of the accountability issue.  Leadership and Self-Deception was first published in 2000 and then re-issued as a second edition in 2010.  The book has sold over 1,000,000 copies since it was published and sales have grown every year since it was first “discovered” by HR, OD, and change practitioners.

What makes the book so different (and hard to describe) is that it looks at work behavior as fundamentally an inside-out proposition.  We basically act out externally what we are feeling inside.  Bad behavior externally—doing just enough to get by, compliance instead of commitment, and putting self-interest ahead of team or department goals—are justified because of the way that that colleagues, managers, and senior leaders are acting in return.

The folks at The Arbinger Institute, the corporate authors of the book, call this “in the box thinking” and they believe it is the root cause of many of the problems being experienced at work today.

Is your organization stuck “in the box?”

Wondering if negative attitudes inside might be causing poor accountability on the outside in your organization? Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself.

  • Where are the trouble spots in your organization?  Where are people getting the job done but it seems to always be at minimum level of performance—and with a low sense of enthusiasm and morale?
  • What are the possible attitudes and beliefs among members of that team or department that make them feel justified in their behaviors?  Why do they feel it is okay to narrow the scope of their job, focus on their own agenda, and do only what’s required to stay out of trouble—but not much more?
  • What can you do to break the cycle of negative thinking that keeps people “in the box?”

Climbing out of the box

Surprisingly, the answer to breaking out of the box starts with expecting more of yourself and others. People climb into the box when they decide to do less than their best.  The folks at Arbinger describe this as “self-betrayal” and it sets in motion all sorts of coping strategies that end up with self-focused behaviors.  Don’t let that happen in your organization.  Here are two ways that you can help people see beyond their self interests.

  1. Constantly remind people of the bigger picture and their role in it.  Set high standards and hold people accountable to them.
  2. Second, and just as important, provide high levels of support and encouragement for people to do the right thing.  Make it easy for people to put the needs of the team, department, and organization ahead of their own.  Look at reward, recognition, and compensation strategies.  Look at growth and career planning.  What can you do to free people up to focus on the needs of others instead of themselves?

Change behavior by changing beliefs

Accountability is a tough issue to address because most people feel justified in their actions and opinions.  Don’t let your people self-justify their way into lower performance.  It’s not good for them and it’s not good for your organization.  Lead people to higher levels of performance.  Help people find the best in themselves.

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