Posts Tagged ‘accountability’

Why Accountability Backfired

Friday, October 10th, 2014

In the last post (When Accountability Backfires) I asked,

Why do I still turn off my office lights religiously, while I have not continued with DuoLingo?

Thank you for your insightful comments to that post. I love this tribe of savvy and sharp thinkers. You are an amazing community, and I’m grateful.

Here is my summary of the theories you all have offered:

  • A person was holding me accountable, not a computer. [Heather, Pawel, Jeff]
  • I value one outcome more than the other. [Josh, Kirk, Terry, Anya]
  • I value my relationship with Kim. [Heather, Josh, Brad, Terry, Anya, Dan, Keith, Brett, Kirk, Angie, Jeff]
  • Intrinsic rewards are more motivating. [Kevin]
  • Extrinsic rewards are more motivating. [Pawel]
  • A harsh or unfair penalty generates resentment.  [Julie, Brad]
  • A streak isn’t the same as progress. [Julie]
  • Misaligned values (or a shift in values over time) drive noncompliance. [Victoria]
  • Perceptions about others’ motivations/intentions drive behavior.  [Sarah]
  • Easier goals are more likely to get done. [Angie]

As promised, here are a couple more offerings from me, that weave together some of your theories:

Theory #1: When one is not fully bought in to the value of a new behavior, it is hard to continue in the face of failures or setbacks.

For example, if you’re not excited about exercising, it is harder to get back into a routine, once you’ve slipped. It takes extra energy and motivation to re-generate momentum.

With the post-it note, I think over time I had become more intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. Extrinsic accountability is a great way to kick-start a change. My answerability to someone else promoted a new and desirable behavior. Then there was a tipping point. Once I felt confident and competent in my new behaviors, external accountability was no longer required. In the case of the Great DuoLingo Rebellion of 2014, however, I never was fully bought-in to the idea that I needed to practice every day. DuoLingo is a hard master, insisting on daily obedience. When my streak was over, I was forced to evaluate if I wanted to keep slogging on, daily. I quickly (though not necessarily consciously) calculated it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Theory #2 (and this may be closest to the heart of the matter): The strength of the relational connection correlates to the sustainability of the new behavior.  

Kim was the individual holding me accountable for the office lights. I value Kim, our relationship, and her opinion of me. I don’t know Luis von Ahn or anyone else at Duolingo, and I don’t care what they think of me. Even after I rebelled against Kim’s accountability mechanism (the post-it note), I remain committed to being a better man, for her.

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When Accountability Backfires

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

I used to forget to turn off the lights in my office. When my wife Kim noticed, she turned them off for me.

One day she got tired of this routine and stuck a post-it note on the light switch to remind me to flip it off when leaving. It started off as a joke, including a tally of how many times she had to deliver her “lights off service.” It was very effective, until I ripped it off the wall in frustration.

One day, after two months of success, I got two tic marks from Kim back-to-back. I had a surprisingly strong emotional reaction to this. I angrily pulled the post-it off the wall, crumpled it, and pitched it in the trash.

I’m not completely incorrigible, though. I still turn the lights off, even without the post-it reminder.

I’ll come back to this point.

A second story, related to the first…

I used to rave about the smartphone app DuoLingo, which helped me hone my French and Spanish skills. The app is gamified, so users get points for regular use and language proficiency. I had worked my way up to a 46-day streak of achievements. Then, on day 48, at 12:01am, I received a sad-trombone message notifying me that my streak had come to an end. I had accidentally slipped up and missed a day.

My attitude towards DuoLingo soured.  That was 3 months ago, and I haven’t opened the app since.

The common theme in these two stories is that after some initial sustained compliance, I actively rebelled against the accountability.

Why? I have a theory:

Self-deception, when exposed, triggers defensiveness.

I thought I would perform well against both these assignments. Turn off the lights? Easy. Do some language homework on my phone each night? Piece of cake. It turns out I was fooling myself. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my thinking went something like this: “I can submit to this. Success will affirm my ego. I’ll play along.” In both cases, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I thought I didn’t really need the accountability, until I did. I was play-acting submission to the accountability.

Failing at these tasks revealed the truth—I needed some outside help to keep me on track. I got resentful when my self-deception was exposed.

This is useful for me to understand, both as an individual who needs to be held accountable (to be alert to my own play-acting) and also as a leader who holds others accountable (to help others identify and deal with their own self-deception).

[Josh Davis, thanks for your insight into this dynamic.]

The difference between the two stories is that I continued with the desired behavior in one, but stopped cold turkey in the other.   Why?  On this one, I confess I’m a little stuck.

I have a handful of theories, none of which seem to fully explain my behavior. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. But before I reveal my ideas, I’d like to hear some more opinions. Perhaps you have an insight into this question that has been nagging at me:

Why do I still turn off my office lights religiously, while I have not continued with DuoLingo?

I’d love to hear your theories.  Fire away, and I’ll post some more of my thinking later.


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Acknowledging Pain

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

According to reports I’m hearing, my experience applying for a policy on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace has been pretty typical – I’ve spent many hours navigating the site and trying to get help from well-intentioned customer service reps with no more power or knowledge than me.

The two elements of this experience that are most fascinating to me are 1) how the President and his team communicated about before its launch, and 2) how they have since responded to the furor over the actual launch.

What can we learn from this unfolding story, from a change management perspective?

Before the launch, the White House didn’t acknowledge the predictable negative aspects of implementing the Affordable Care Act to those who would be affected by it.  In fact, President Obama made big promises before the launch that were likely impossible to deliver.

Since went live on Oct 1, it has had some significant problems that have disappointed many stakeholders.  It seems that a key part of the White House strategy during October was to ignore and minimize the negatives.  For weeks, I heard the euphemism “glitches” almost daily.  In a segment I heard on NPR, the President answered concerns about the website by re-directing attention to positive aspects of the program.  Re-direction works well for irrational children having temper tantrums (“How about some ice cream?”), but not for angry adults who have legitimate concerns.

For the first 29 days post-launch, there was a lot of buck-passing, but not much blame-taking.  Secretary Sebelius and President Obama have both recently apologized and said they are accountable, which has helped settle some stakeholders down.

When implementing a disruptive change, leaders build trust and commitment by 1) acknowledging the pain they anticipate causing, and 2) taking ownership and apologizing for the unanticipated pain they cause.

Disruptive change often hurts.  Even when a change is perceived as beneficial, moving from the present (in which one is competent and comfortable) to a new future (in which one is not yet competent nor comfortable) introduces pain.  The pain may not always be as bad as what users of are experiencing, but it is in many cases.

Leaders who fail to talk authentically about the pain they’re causing erode trust. When those affected by change don’t have the opportunity to mentally and emotionally prepare for the pain, it feels less manageable to them when it occurs.  They can feel betrayed, and whatever commitment and buy-in a leader generated earlier in the change process can evaporate.  Too often, we want to rescue others from conversations about pain too quickly.  I’ve seen leaders tentatively and apologetically broach the topic of pain, then, as quickly as possible, turn to a more comfortable topic.  I call this “pivoting to unicorns and rainbows.”  Often I remind leaders to be open and upfront about the pain they’re introducing to their organizations.  I warn them about the tendency to avoid conversations about the pain and the need to let people “sit in the pain.”  Those leaders nod agreeably then go out and pivot to unicorns and rainbows.  This has taught me that this behavior (authentically predicting and acknowledging the pain caused by organizational change) is surprisingly difficult.

Leaders who don’t hold themselves accountable for the impact of their changes also erode trust.  Sometimes leaders feel they shouldn’t have to apologize for the pain that others experience.  Maybe they didn’t make the decisions that caused pain.  Or maybe they did make the decisions, but incompetence downstream caused the pain.  Or, maybe they feel that apologizing implies they had foul motives.   In all these circumstances, I recommend being accountable and apologizing for the pain.  Humans have strong survival and self-defense mechanisms.  When we get hurt, we usually try to avoid getting hurt again.  We erect emotional barriers, and we tend to ascribe bad motives to whomever we blame for hurting us.  It’s very hard to be in right relationship with a person who has hurt us but doesn’t acknowledge the damage.  Our personal and professional relationships require a measure of transparency and vulnerability in order to generate trust.  Most of us don’t have a significant personal relationship with President Obama, but when we’re implementing disruptive change, relationships with our teams and other stakeholders are key to our organizational and personal success.

I trust the leader who predicts, “This is going to hurt.”

I also trust the leader who apologizes, “I’m sorry that hurt.”

Nothing softens the hard heart like a genuine apology.

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XYZ Sandwich

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Thanks to my good friend Kris Taylor from K. Taylor & Associates for hosting me as a guest on her site.  You can read my post on The XYZ Sandwich there.

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Decision Rights (part deux)

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

In the last post, Decision Rights (part 1), I introduced the RACI Chart, explained what it is, and showed an example.  But why would anyone use the RACI model instead of just proceeding with business as usual?

First off, if your organization makes good decisions quickly and without looking back, then please carry on smartly.  But I have found that poorly-defined decision rights are at the root of many dysfunctional team dynamics.

Some advantages of clarifying decision rights:

Clearer boundaries and fewer fights. When stakeholders are unsure of who owns the decision (or multiple individuals all feel they should have a vote), the decision process can devolve into combative arguments, wherein each person struggles to push his/her own ideas and agenda.  The analogy:  kids in a sandbox all grabbing for the same toy.

Clear accountability. A decision with multiple approvers (decision by committee) has diffuse accountability (meaning, really, no accountability).  When a committee makes a bad decision, who is accountable?  On the other hand, when one individual has authority to make a decision, that individual can be coached to improve his/her decision processes or rewarded for good decisions (with an acknowledgment and/or increasing levels of decision authority over time).

Decisions are made with appropriate speed. When we require consensus from all committee members before moving forward, we effectively give every member a veto.  That slows down the decision process, even when there’s no more information to gather that could improve the quality of the decision.

Decision quality improves. Designating a “Responsible” party to tee up decisions, explore options, and make recommendations helps ensure that the best possible solutions are considered.  By having the right people involved (subject matter experts and cross-functional stakeholders, e.g.) in the Consulted role, Approvers benefit from the wisdom of others.

Creating a RACI chart isn’t a panacea.  There is some hard work involved in making it work.  Some keys to success:

  • To preserve trust, respect, and credibility, Approvers must take into account the interests of those in the role of Consulted.  Approvers must make decisions based on “what’s good for us” instead of “what’s good for me.”
  • Leaders must provide feedback and coaching to Approvers on the quality of their decisions.
  • Teams must get good at creating RACI Charts “on the fly.”  It is impossible to predict every decision that a team will face.  A good starting point is getting used to asking, “Whose decision is this?”

What do you think?  Are there any other benefits to clearer decision rights that I’m missing?  How would clearer decision rights help your organization?

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