Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior

1. Introduction

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron Mcillan, and AJ Switzler are the leaders of VitalSmarts, a top leadership company that helps organizations with employee effectiveness. Their first bestselling book “Crucial Conversations” provided the necessary tools to dealing with high-stake interactions in the workplace. Crucial Accountability is the “sequel” to their first book. In this work, the authors highlight the principles which will prepare you for the next accountability discussion when expectations are not met after being agreed upon, either at work or at home.

Research shows that people tend to keep silent when faced with broken commitments. 93% of employees in the workplace have at least someone they find difficult to work with, but nobody holds the person accountable because he/she doesn’t want to look bad. Project managers admit that they are going to be late on their current projects because the deadlines are insane from the start but nobody has the guts to speak up and say: “Could you involve us before you pick delivery dates?”.

Remember the space shuttle Challenger that exploded into pieces after launching? We learnt that several engineers were concerned that a part of the shuttle (the O-rings) might malfunction but they didn’t say anything because no one pushes back honestly with the bosses. And yet, they should.

The advantages of holding one another accountable are great: Hospitals found out that by dealing with protocol violations (e.g. not washing hands before a surgery), the compliance rate moved from a typical 70% to a perfect 100% compliance score. Findings also show that when leaders were asked who their top workers were, every single one of the top-value employees selected by them had the skills to hold others accountable and did so in the workplace. John C. Maxwell, top leadership expert, wrote a phenomenal book on what it takes to become a great leader. We summarized them HERE for you.

So, the good news is this: it is possible to learn how to get people to be accountable for their actions. With this book, you will learn steps to pick up a skillset that teaches you how to navigate accountability discussions before, during and after these discussions take place.

2. The Chapters Explained

This book covers three parts: what to do Before, During, and After an accountability discussion. Let’s look at each of them.

Part 1: BEFORE an accountability discussion

Many accountability discussions fail because the individual bringing up the failed promise isn’t prepared enough. He has not worked through the issues himself nor primed himself in the right frame of mind. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Choose your “What” and “If”. Ask yourself: WHAT is the conversation I should hold & IF I should hold it.

WHAT: Time constraints and hyped-up emotions are often the cause of people confronting the wrong issues. Use “CPR” to get to the right conversations – Content, Patterns and Relationship. When an expectation is violated, talk about what just happened (Content). If such behaviors happen more than once (Pattern), bring it up. And finally, think about what you really do want and don’t want – for yourself and the other person (Relationship). Sometimes, relationship concerns are far bigger than either the content or pattern. For example, the issue is not that other people have repeatedly broken promises; it’s that the string of disappointments has caused you to lose trust in them and it is affecting the way you treat one another.

IF: It’s easy to decide on having an accountability conversation when there clearly are broken promises involved. However, when the infractions are ambiguous or discussing them could get you in trouble, the key to deciding if you should speak up is to honestly ask yourself if you’re not speaking up when you should. Ask yourself if you are “leaking”, i.e. behaving in a way that shows that you are concerned or upset, or if your conscience bugs you, or if you’re choosing silence because it’s the easier option.

  1. Master Your Stories – Being well informed

Once you’ve gone through the “WHAT” and the “IF” and decided to have the accountability conversation, master your story by seeking out all the “why’s” of the problem. This helps bring a balanced, rational and empathetic view to the table. Put yourself in a third person’s shoes and ask what he would do if he had seen the situation. The potential root of all behavior can be classified into a model that contains six sources of influence:

Motivation Ability
Personal

1

Want to

2

Can do

Social

3

Peer Pressure

4

Help from others

Structural

5

Carrots & Sticks

6

Structures, Environments & Tools

At the top of the model are the two components of behavior selection. In order to take the required action, the person must be willing and able. Each of these components is affected by three sources of influence: self (personal), others (social) and things (structural).

Explore what influenced the person’s behavior by considering the six sources of influence – personal, social, and structural factors. These factors may either motivate or enable a person to keep his/her commitment. Before lashing out at a subordinate who did not submit an urgent report as promised, you may discover that another data analyst (for example: social factor) that held the critical information your subordinate needed for the report was on leave, and therefore the infraction was one of an inability to complete the task, rather than a lack of motivation.

Part 2: DURING an accountability discussion

Suppose someone did not hold up to the set expectations. Instead of calling out these serious and consequential deviations of behavior as “infractions”, the authors suggest terming them as “the Gap”. During an accountability discussion, you describe the Gap by sharing your view of what you expected as well as what was actually observed.

This can be done in three steps:
  1. Start with safety

People are willing to talk about a touchy issue when they feel safe. Begin by stating the facts of the behavior that was contrary to the agreed expectations, and maintain safety by establishing a sense of mutual respect by showing them that you care about their goals as well as yours. Use phrases like “I thought we agreed on” and “I was wondering if” instead of “You said” and “It’s clear”.

  1. Share your path

After sharing the facts, you can start sharing your story – to show how the other person’s misbehaviour has affected you. At the same time, keep looking out for threats to safety (e.g. when the person you’re talking to becomes defensive). Every time a side-track happens, whether that be another new problem or an explosive emotion, be flexible enough either to deal with the emergent problems or to leave a “bookmark” at the original problem for another time.

  1. End with a question

Finish off your side of the sharing with a simple diagnostic question like “what happened?” instead of a harsh accusation like “what’s wrong with you!”

Let’s take a look at where we are now in the process.

Say you’ve observed the Gap with someone. For example, Sam didn’t complete a quality check at work. It’s important, so you’ve decided to deal with it, and determined the right problem to discuss. Now, you’re with the Sam and you’ve briefly and effectively described the Gap.

How Sam responds to your description of the Gap will determine your next move. He could exclaim something like “what’s the big deal? It’s just a stupid quality check anyway!” . If he states this, then you’re staring at a motivation problem. Or he could say something like: “I don’t really know how to do the procedure you asked for.” Here, you have a problem with ability.

Let’s explore how both problems can be addressed:

If it is a problem with motivation… Make it motivating!

Even better than using rank or reward to motivate someone to repent, is to use natural motivators (or consequences) to encourage change. Here are 5 motivating tactics:

  1. Link to the person’s core values. For example, in addressing your spouse’s unhealthy eating habits, even after having two bypass surgeries, instead of nagging or attacking, speak to his/her core value of being around to help raise the kids. “Dear, if your eating habits don’t change, you won’t raise our children; I will. Do you have the same concern? What do you think?”
  2. Connect short-term benefits with long-term pain – Show how the short-term enjoyment the person is currently experiencing is inextricably connected to longer-term problems. For example: “I’m sure it’s a hassle to double-check appointments when you enter them on my calendar, but our current error rate is so high that the assistants of the other vice presidents are calling me to ask for confirmation. I worry that your reputation here is going to be hurt if we can’t solve this.”
  3. Place the focus on long-term benefits– To help people stay on course, take the focus off the short-term challenges by placing it on the long-term benefit. For example, in dealing with an overly picky mother who exhibits unreasonable behavior because of her children’s untidiness: “I know that putting up with some of the kids’ messiness is really hard for you. I also believe that your relationship with them is at risk if you can’t learn to let some of the smaller things go.”
  4. Introduce the hidden victims – Describe the unintended and often invisible effects an action is having on others. At work, leaders can do this by clearly and carefully explaining the consequences to the company’s various stakeholders: “Here’s what your failure to comply is doing to other employees, to the customer, to the shareholders, to the boss, and so forth.”
  5. Hold up a mirror – Describe how the person’s action is being viewed by others: “It’s starting to look like you don’t care about the team’s results when your team has a major project on but you drop everything and leave the office before 5pm every day.”

When making a behavioral change motivating, match methods to circumstances. If people simply want to know the exact method, explain what needs to be done and why. Whenever you’re dealing with someone who is resisting, avoid the temptation to jump to power. Instead, search for consequences that matter to the other person.

If it is a problem with ability… Make it easy!

Resourceful people realize that when others are dealing with an ability barrier, they can either tell them outright what to do, or invite them to help come up with a solution. They fight their natural tendency to jump in with an answer all the time and instead involve the other person, because doing so both enables and motivates him/her. Involve the other party by asking for ideas, and honestly be open to his/her suggestions instead of manipulating him/her towards your own opinions.

Part 3: AFTER an accountability discussion

The people who are best at managing accountability create a complete plan by being specific about what comes next. This includes who does what by when and a clear follow up. This idea is simple and serves as its own reminder.

Two forms of follow up are the “Check-up” and “Check-back”. The check-up is done when you’re giving the assignment and are nervous or have questions (you’ve looked at the risk, the track record, and the person’s experience, and you’re feeling anxious or uneasy). This is the best time to do the check-up. You take the lead. Get your calendar out and say something like “Since this is such an important task, I’m wondering if we could meet next Wednesday at 10 to review how it’s going.” You write it down and you are in charge of the follow-up.

Use a check-back when the task is routine and has been assigned to someone who is experienced and reliable. Now that person is in charge. The person checks back. He or she offers suggestions: “The deadline is two weeks from today. Could we meet next Thursday 15 minutes before our staff meeting to touch base?”

3. Personal Opinion

This book surprised me with its wide range of examples and realistic scenarios which were addressed throughout the chapters. Most “accountability” type books tend to generalize the issues more.

I noticed that some of the tools provided in the book were more diagnostic. For example, in chapter 1, to decide IF you should have an accountability discussion, the book suggests “reflect on whether if you’re intentionally staying silent/running away from the issue” instead of the more procedural “here’s the steps you should take”. Neither is better than the other; I think having a good mix of both is key to having a more flexible and empathetic conversation.

Overall this book would be useful for most people in the workplace – be it for someone in a managerial role, or for anyone having to interact with co-workers.


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Sarah Phua
Hi, my name is Sarah and I love business books. I have a passion for doing things right and helping companies perform at their best so that they can be accountable to their stakeholders – the community from which the business draws its resources