A new accountability for personal performance (Guest commentary)

Give staff decision-making flexibility to create an agile organization
By John Kuypers
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2011

Some leaders want to control decisions at every level of an organization, even if they hate to admit it. A senior leader who randomly checks in on lower levels, points out errors and pressures others to conform to her expectations is communicating loudly and clearly who is in control of every level’s quality of work. As a result, lower levels do not feel ownership of their work because they have limited decision-making power. This is the main pitfall of command and control.

Excessive use of policies and procedures can also be evidence of too much control coming down from higher levels. Technology and data security are fuelling this to a greater degree than ever before. Sales reps now upload their daily results by Internet, detailing what they accomplished each day.

Much of this is excellent — improving productivity and effectiveness. Nonetheless, there needs to be room for staff to have decision-making flexibility to work within these increasingly well-defined constraints.

Who should decide when these exceptions arise? Being clear and upfront about this will be more important than ever in coming years simply because performance can be tracked now at ever-increasing levels of micro-detail.

Even more importantly, it is vital to have a “process to change the process” of how decisions are made. That is a core aim of my new book, Who’s the Driver Anyways? — to collaborate around who gets to decide, rather than what the final decision itself will be. This is what builds a team that is flexible in shifting from an established way of doing things.

Control is the way old school leaders trusted their plans would be executed their way. This worked fine in a world where employees were mostly compliant and homogeneous, and where the business itself was stable enough that a handful of leaders could assimilate enough knowledge to approve the decisions that mattered. But the forces of change are blowing through the workplace in the form of better information, more educated, culturally diverse workers and a workforce more willing to walk away from a job if they are unhappy.

For leaders who recognize these changes and want to deepen employee commitment to peak performance, one solution is to set better expectations within clearly defined responsibilities. This is a key component of shifting an organization or team towards a new accountability for personal performance. Otherwise, a collaborative team can soon be a team where no one is accountable.

The new accountability will shift who makes key decisions in a very specific way. Each level will have more power to decide how much decision-making support or control they want from above. This is a turning of the tables — not 180 degrees but 90 degrees — from top-down to collaborative.

In the old world, the leader decided unilaterally how much control to yield, whether it was a lot or a little. In the new world, the employee and the leader discuss and mutually agree. Each must then live up to her commitments and be held accountable.

This is the real acid test of personal accountability — the ability to refrain from unilaterally taking back power and control when things become difficult. For the new accountability to take root, it must be supported from the very top. If not, command and control will inevitably reassert itself.

Two significant changes are thus established. One is shared power and authority around key accountabilities that are explicitly discussed and assigned. The second is the subordinate is a full participant in that decision. How far each should go, how hands-on or hands-off a person wants to be managed, can be defined using specific ratios of shared responsibilities for decision-making. The tool we use for this is called “The 7 Performance Drivers.”

The new accountability will disturb the status quo. Every major leadership model of the last 50 years — from Tannenbaum/Schmidt in the 1950s to Hersey/Blanchard in the early 1970s to Elliott Jaques in the 1980s — has positioned the delegating of power as a one-way decision by a leader.

The new accountability is now saying to lower levels, “You decide, within your level. The onus is on you. How much decision-making power and authority do you need? What support do you want from me so that you’ll be as successful as you can be? Do you also understand and accept the power and authority obligations and limitations of your job level?” This will be a collaborative discussion resulting in firm commitments to executing shared responsibilities.

This approach is guaranteed to put people on the same page — but it is not guaranteed to be the page either originally had in mind. Hence, the need to be flexible about decisions made by others. This is partially because of process constraints and partially because the world is changing rapidly and we all need to be more flexible.

I have seen clients who, upon facing dug-in conflicts from determined employees, have finally agreed to disagree and parted ways. This usually happens at great expense and stress. One general manager had a senior manager who wanted to control what accountabilities she could put on her own plate. The general manager was unwilling to grant her that level of authority. Each stood his ground and severance was the end result of a tough one-year struggle.

I believe this end result is better than continuing to work unhappily, resenting one’s employer and hindering an organization’s performance.

In a collaborative world, the onus is on both sides to take the initiative to be clear about what accountabilities have been assigned and how much latitude each has to make key decisions along the way. Defining who is the doer and who is the decider is the key. If you agree on who gets to decide, that’s collaborating. If you disagree, that’s a path to endless conflict.

John Kuypers is a former marketing and sales vice-president in Toronto. The above article is an edited excerpt from his new book, Who’s the Driver Anyway?, published by Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business. To order the book, visit www.carswell.com. For more information about Kuypers, visit www.performanceshift.com.

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