Most of what I write, and what others write on similar platforms, focuses on the encouraging and inspirational side of leadership such as motivation, building trust, and developing the next generation of leaders. It’s fun to write and read about these topics because they make us, our people, and our organizations better. They’re also easy to write about. What’s challenging to write about and get people discussing are the less-stimulating sides to leadership such as holding others accountable and enforcing standards. I can already feel the dread overcome me as I write those words…
Critical characteristics for any field to be considered a true profession include high individual and collective responsibility and mutual accountability. In the military, this includes standards like professional appearance and wear of uniforms, physical fitness requirements, maintaining positive control of all assigned Soldiers and equipment, and routine certification in your assigned tasks by your higher headquarters. So, how do we do that well, where we can hold each other accountable while inspiring them to want to inherently be and do better? I believe we can all recall times where someone, such as a boss, unnecessarily tore us down for not maintaining a certain standard; maybe they even targeted us personally, rather than just our undesired behavior. I challenge the assumption held by many that holding others accountable to the standards requires strict and harsh reactions. How can we enact mutual accountability while continuing to build a stronger, more effective, and cohesive team? In his book (which I highly recommend), The Culture Code, Dan Coyle asserts that, “one misconception about highly successful [team] cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.”
Recently, during our graduate study of organizational psychology, a number of my colleagues and I attempted to tackle this issue of how to hold one another accountable and enforce standards in an effective manner, where we help inspire commitment to the standards, and prevent excuses and emotional reactions from others. Though it is much too complicated of a topic to simply boil down to a short list of individual behaviors that equate to automatic success, we did attempt to identify key attitudes, behaviors, and considerations to best enact this challenging side of leadership responsibility. Below are 12 leader principles to help effective standards enforcement.
- Be knowledgeable of regulations and policies; gather the facts and build context. This allows you to handle situations when you confront others with confidence and clarity, rather than saying, “I think it’s supposed to be…”
- Set the example in your words and behavior. Period. Early and always.
- Eradicate the fear of being not liked or isolated by some people; commit to enacting leadership, not “likership.” You won’t always be popular for upholding standards, but your personal example and the relationships you build will create trust within your organization.
- Build valence (or intrinsic attractiveness) for the standards in others; explain the “why” and lead them to understand the bigger picture.
- Enact behaviors founded in strong emotional intelligence.
- Approach corrective situations with a curious attitude; do not act unnecessarily aggressive. Also, use an “escalation of force” in your approach based on the severity of the issue and the situational context.
- Focus on behaviors and facts; do not make it personal. Most people will be receptive to criticism of observed behaviors, but less responsive if you’re telling them that they’re failing as a leader.
- Manage expectations of the outcomes and conversations. Personal attitudes and collective cultural norms are not altered in a single conversation.
- Know and leverage what motivates your organization and people.
- Offer the appropriate balance of challenge (accountability, punishment, correction) and support (care, concern, help) based on your people, the issue(s), and other influential context. Also, focus on the issue at hand and do not unnecessarily generalize this to someone’s overall performance or potential.
- Consider a balance of benevolence versus dominance.
- Understand the influence of your non-verbal communication methods in addition to your verbal ones. Your body language and facial expressions can influence just as much as your words and tone.
I offer this list not as a step-by-step solution that will immediately resolve people not adhering to standards; I certainly am a student within this topic and do not have many of the answers. I write this more as a conversation starter. This complex issue requires transparency and honesty among organizational members. Why do we accept certain sub-standard performance or behavior? If we have a sizable counter-culture that fights the established expectations of our organization, why does it exist? What do we need to change to alleviate a strong anti-standards culture? Leaders need to engage in these challenging conversations to even begin to consider initiating a cultural shift in attitude and commitment to expectations and established standards.
I encourage readers to join the conversation on how we can best tackle organizational accountability and standards enforcement. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, the 3×5 Leadership Facebook Group, and Twitter.
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