For the past 10 months we have attempted to examine the issue of holding others accountable for their performance. We began by dismissing accountability as simply “punishment” but rather defined it as involving first the identification of either failure or success, followed by an examination of the underlying reasons for the failure/success and then the determination of the appropriate consequences to help sustain the success or eliminate the failure in the future. Determining the underlying reason(s) for failure/success is arguably the most critical aspect of the accountability process. We then discussed how two cognitive biases can impact how we initially react to performance failure and thus impact our evaluation of causation. One of these is what is called the Confirmation Bias or the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms our preconceptions. In other words, we are predisposed to look for causes that confirm what we expect. The second cognitive bias is what is called the Fundamental Attribution Error which says that we tend to attribute internal/motivational causes to the poor performance of others but not to our own poor performance. This cognitive bias can cause us to “jump to the conclusion” that the cause of the poor performance was due to motivation and thus interfere with our complete evaluation of other causes. We also discussed our research which indicates that much of the time we fail to even speak up because we are concerned that the other person will become either defensive or angry and our intervention will therefore not really change anything anyway. Effective accountability requires that we speak up, but do so in a way that minimizes or eliminates defensiveness. This requires us to stop committing the fundamental attribution error and stop guessing about the cause of the failure because this can lead us to blame the person for the failure and cause them to become defensive. Rather we should realize that failure can occur for a myriad of reasons, only one of which is motivation. When people fail it is usually not because they are trying to fail, rather what people do makes perfect sense to them in the moment. We call this “local rationality” because their actions make sense given the context in which they find themselves. We examined a “contextual model” of performance which includes four primary factors: self, others, surroundings and systems, and several specific factors for each (see “Diagnostic Skills for Poor Performance”). Many times we cannot see these factors at work until we discuss them with the person, so it is imperative that we ask the person questions to determine the real cause(s) of the performance failure. We suggested that you begin by respectfully (without guessing) ask an opening question to determine the general factor(s) involved and then ask drill-down questions to determine the specific factors that need to be addressed. Always remember to listen completely to their response including both what they say and how they say it. If it turns out that the reason for the performance failure is motivation, then you must determine if it is an intrinsic or extrinsic motivation issue. Often the person is simply not aware of the consequences of continued failure (extrinsic motivation) so bringing the possible natural consequences to life might be all that is needed to increase motivation. When intrinsic motivation is the issue, then connecting continued failure to their self-respect is often a good approach to increasing motivation. When the failure is the result of non-motivational factors then getting the person involved in determining the best fix is very important, so invite their ideas rather than prescribing the solution and you will get much more buy-in and probably a much better fix. When the fix doesn’t work and you discover that the person has failed again, then we suggested that you first determine if the failure is due to the same cause(s) as before. If not, then fix the new cause(s). If they are the same and the continued failure is really a motivation issue, then we suggested that you implement your organizations progressive discipline procedure. This process should help improve motivation, but also provides legal documentation should termination become necessary.
Finally, don’t forget to recognize success. Providing positive feedback for success is necessary to sustain that success going forward. In our October Newsletter (Sustaining Good Performance) we discussed the What, When, Where and How of providing positive feedback.
What’s the point?
Successful performance requires that we get feedback on how we are doing so that we know what and how to improve. Not getting feedback would be like driving blindfolded and we can just imagine what would happen if everyone did that. Holding people accountable for performance is really a process of providing that feedback and when done correctly we can eliminate defensiveness, improve motivation and get better results.