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Holding People Accountable

What does it mean to hold people accountable in the workplace? Must a person be in a position of authority–a manager or a supervisor to hold another person accountable for his or her actions? It is certainly important for people in leadership roles to hold employees accountable for fulfilling their job duties. However, holding people accountable goes far beyond a manager’s responsibility to set expectations with employees about job performance.

Holding people accountable involves a willingness to confront unproductive behavior directly rather than complaining to others about what someone else has done. While it may seem that the culture of an organization is what prevents people from holding each other accountable, culture is formed from the collective action of individuals. If the leader holds individuals responsible for their actions, not by holding them up as examples in meetings, but by talking with them one-on-one about expectations, the culture is likely to shift rapidly. But any member of the organization can contribute to a change in the culture by being direct with colleagues in a firm but respectful way.

Suppose you belong to a work group that has decided to use consensus for decision making. A member of the group who is your peer “checks out” during meetings and does not participate in discussions about important topics. Outside of the meetings, she makes it clear to other colleagues that she does not support the group’s position. How could you hold your colleague accountable for her actions?

What if you started by having a one-on-one conversation with your colleague about your observations? Something like, “I was surprised to learn, after the group meeting that you did not agree with the decision we reached. Is there a way we could adjust our process in the group to make it more clear when we have reached a consensus?” With this approach, you address the individual’s counter-productive behavior and invite her to participate in a solution.


Why I am “pro” rather than “anti”

About the same time that I proposed to use an Appreciative Inquiry approach for strategic planning with a new client, Chris Bourg wrote a piece about anti-harassment policies at conferences for her blog, Feral Librarian. Chris advised other libraries to join Stanford in encouraging staff members to look at whether a conference has an anti-harassment policy or not when making a decision to attend. These two events got me thinking about why I prefer to stand for than against.

For one thing, I think positive psychology is onto something–that positive imagery can create positive action. Conversely, I believe it is possible that focusing on negative imagery or undesirable behavior may create negative action or at least unintended consequences.

In The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Annis Hammond cites studies that indicate that sexual harassment complaints have increased over time, following the introduction of sexual harassment prevention training. She does not suggest that the training has caused inappropriate behavior to increase, but that the focus on inappropriate behavior in the training may cause people to find the behaviors they have learned about.

By contrast, Hammond suggests exploring what it’s like to be treated with dignity and respect. Then people can learn to connect with empathy rather than policing others in the organization (or at the conference) with a checklist of no-nos.

The other reason I prefer to emphasize the positive is because I think the list of what constitutes harassment is too narrow and as such does not necessarily promote dignity and respect for all. For example, one comment on Chris’ blog says, “I support this but nothing like this has happened to me in a long while. Not since my early ALA conferences. But that’s because I am in an age group where no one harasses me anymore.” This statement seems to make the assumption that harassment is only something that happens to young people–presumably women. However, I have witnessed behavior at conferences that might not be categorized as harassment, but is dismissive of older people.

While not engaging in this behavior herself, Chris was recently involved in a Twitter exchange about what ORWM means. Apparently one of Chris’ Twitter followers labeled something Chris had “snarked” about as an ORWM comment or action. Upon investigation, Chris determined that ORWM means Old Retired (or Rich) White Man. What does generating a label like that do to the open exchange of ideas? What about criticizing the substance of the action or the comment (ill informed, disrespectful) instead of labeling the actor?

Also, because libraries and librarianship are changing quickly, people may choose to attend conferences that are loosely organized or ad hoc. Start-up conferences of this type are unlikely to have a governance structure that is comprehensive enough to include policies that govern behavior at the conference. What about encouraging folks to raise awareness at all conferences they attend about what it looks like to treat everyone with dignity and respect? What about choosing conferences that have pro-civility policies instead of anti-harassment policies?


The Shift from Performance Evaluation to Performance Leadership

This is Performance Assessment season in libraries. I see colleagues posting anguished messages on Facebook about this fraught annual ritual. There is really no need for the process to be so stressful! Earlier this week, I introduced managers and supervisors in one library to two concepts that can reduce the anxiety spike of annual performance evaluation–SMART goals, and coaching for performance.

Regardless of what forms are required for institutional compliance, there are two relatively simple changes managers and supervisors can make to reduce annual performance evaluation stress. The first change is to focus on goals that contribute to organizational strategy when planning work for the year ahead. The second is to meet regularly to measure progress towards goals.

The SMART framework encourages creation of goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. This can be a shift from annual goals that look more like a lists of tasks from employees’ position descriptions. Although the performance cycle may be annual, goals can be set for shorter time periods that are nested within the year. Remember to put the focus on those goals that contribute to the organization’s strategic mission. People are motivated if they can see how what they do connects to overarching organizational goals.

By meeting regularly, employees and managers can check on progress towards goals. During the year, if resources or priorities shift, goals can be adjusted. Consistent communication about priorities and performance will insure there are no surprises when the time for documenting performance rolls around. And by documenting the performance related conversations at regular meetings, by reformatting the information when it is time to fill out the forms, what was once a tedious job will be far less daunting.

This time of year marks the beginning of a new performance cycle for many, so it’s a good time to institute a new way of thinking about performance management. A shift to SMART goals with a plan for ongoing coaching and regular performance related conversations creates a culture of performance leadership. Not only will this change make the annual performance cycle less stressful, it will also contribute to more effective performance on the part of individuals and the organization as a whole.

In collaboration with a colleague, I have created a training module that covers SMART goals and coaching for performance. The module is designed for use in academic libraries, but could be modified for use in other types of libraries, or other academic settings such as IT organizations. Let me know if you would like to learn more!



Keep Calm and Carry On

A leader I know posted a link to a video that explained the history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster on her Facebook page last week. Watching the video made me think about how attractive the poster’s message is. Why has it become so popular? To think that we (humans) have the capacity to keep calm and carry on even under extreme circumstances is reassuring in these tumultuous times. But sometimes it doesn’t seem that easy to do. Does leadership make a difference? I think so.

Earlier that week, I had visited the organization the person who had posted the link leads. As I watched the video, I remembered how impressed I had been by the clarity of vision that came through in the meeting I attended. This is an organization that has undergone significant budget cuts over the past several years.

There may have been moments of absolute chaos during the transition period, but what I saw and heard was thoughtful articulation of a mandate and menu of services that had been adjusted so that the organization could meet its goals with current resources. The organization is developing creative new offerings for new markets, they had stopped offering some services, and had made scope adjustments to systems they were continuing to develop and support.

I suspect what enabled the organization to go through the ordeal of cutbacks and come out the other side looking like they are thriving is the quality of leadership. From what I know of this leader (who did not attend any of the meetings, by the way) I suspect she modeled calm behavior through the organizational change process. Just as people can get stressed out at work by a highly emotional leader (especially one who is unpredictable), a clear and calm leader can lower anxiety and stress throughout the organization.

When people are calmer–less anxious and stressed, they are able to think more broadly and creatively. The organization I visited was not simply carrying on in the sense of maintaining the status quo. They had adapted to their new circumstances through creative problem solving. An external threat may have been the catalyst for change, but a calm leader enabled adaptive transformation to occur. Keep Calm and Carry On!