Effective Accountability Conversations.
Brian was hired 6 months ago as a new Manager of a small team of 7 staff in a branch of a country-wide service organisation. He’s committed and enthusiastic and has big plans to improve service delivery and productivity.
Alice has worked there for 15 years and Brian is finding her less amenable to taking on board some of the changes he’s trying to implement. Things like flexibility around the roster, putting the customer first and generally having a positive and upbeat attitude – these are a few of his wish-list for areas he’d like Alice to improve.
‘I suppose I’ll have to sit down with her and talk to her about her attitude’ he said during our last coaching session.
‘What have you been doing to build a relationship with her and give her a sense of being a valued member of the team’ I asked him.
He looked at me wryly ‘valued member of the team…hmm’
Not an uncommon reaction – Brian is so frustrated and feels he has to go in and ‘lay it on the line’. But getting someone to change their behaviour or ‘attitude’ is not a once-off event or conversation. You cannot expect to walk in one day, invite the person for a meeting, give them a shopping list of what they need to improve on and then hope for the best.
Here are some of the thoughts I shared with Brian around how he might work with Alice:
1. The ‘relationship’ bank account:
Think about your working relationship with everyone as a bank account. Actions that put money in the account are all of the interactions that you have with them that foster positive emotions. This starts with basic friendliness – the light-hearted small talk that builds connection over time. You are demonstrating an interest in them as a person and that you respect them. The next stage up from this is helping them feel valued for the work they are doing. Find opportunities to affirm and appreciate them.
Yes, you are probably sceptical about this (as Brian was!) but if you sit down and think about it, I’m sure you can come up with a few things that every team member does, that you are actually satisfied with. Even if it’s just a few things, try and identify these and then give them positive feedback – not gushing or inauthentic, just clear and supportive.
The thing about the relationship bank account is that it’s like a real bank account, things work much better when there is money in the account. So if you have built a relationship with Alice whereby there is credit in the account, then when you are sitting down with her to talk about something that might be challenging for her to hear she will be more open to this. If there’s no credit there, then you are in the red. Having an accountability conversation with someone with whom you haven’t already got some sort of positive relationship won’t work long term. While you might get short term compliance, the longer term consequences range from their behaviour worsening to them going on sick leave or even raising a complaint or bullying grievance against you.
2. What’s In It For Me:
We hear this all the time in sales – knowing your customer WIIFM. Well the same applies here. You have to try and figure out what’s important to Alice in this job. Yes, I know you’ll say it’s just the money but our motivations are never that simple and we all want our paycheck at the end of the week. All of us have values and identity issues at a deeper level that are important to us. In the workplace these might be things like being seen as competent or caring and wanting others to think the best of us. So you need to be trying to find what these are for Alice and reinforcing them where you can.
Knowing what’s important to someone also helps you when you come to have the accountability conversations. You can leverage this when you are talking to them about things that need to change – how that will benefit them in terms of their reputation or whatever it is that helps them feel valued. It will also assist you in helping them get clear on the consequences of not changing i.e. ‘I know you might find some of the clients difficult to deal with and don’t feel like being friendly. I worry that you won’t be able to continue to be in charge of the reception area though unless we can find ways to help you cope more effectively’.
3. Think ‘bigger picture’ but have a detailed plan:
Changing someone’s behaviour isn’t easy or quick. Think about yourself – how many times have you made a resolution on January 1st that you had forgotten by Jan 31st. This is because we take on too much, don’t provide regular habit-changing support activities and give up too easily. The same applies here. Alice has been in this job 15 years. She has built up a whole repertoire of behaviours and an approach to her job that works ok for her. So you can’t decide that you will shift all that in one conversation about her ‘attitude’. Consider the following:
- You need to prioritise – what might be the two or three key behaviours you feel need to be changed?
- Rather than thinking what you don’t want her to do, frame it as much as possible as what you do want to see happening.
- Be really specific – ‘change your attitude’ – what does that mean? Is it that you want her to come in and be dancing every morning? Is it that you want her to be more welcoming and upbeat when clients come into the office
- Link it to what it is you think is important to her. Maybe she’s a very caring kind of person (with her cat or her ill neighbour!). Help her see how the clients might benefit from her caring and warmth.
- Explain your intentions in talking to her about this: ‘I’m looking at how we can make the customer’s experience more positive…I’m not in any way trying to undermine you or make you feel less valued’
- Invite her thoughts on how she could be best helped to make any changes and get her input around how you will check in with her on it regularly and the timelines around this.
Accountability Conversations about performance are an essential aspect of management. But they can’t happen in a vacuum, rather they are just one piece of the jigsaw. They need to be part of a bigger context which has at its core a focus on bringing the best out of everyone on the team. Not a sprint, but a marathon.
Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
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