Nine-tenths of life’s serious controversies come from misunderstanding.
With the global success of our best-selling book “Winning With Accountability, The Secret Language of High Performing Organizations” (now over 100,000 in print) we are giving you the third chapter in three installments. In this, the first installment, we are sharing the “Language of Accountability”.
Traditionally, language is perceived to be the structure of how messages are sent and received. However, language actually achieves more by stimulating opinions and creating emotional responses.
For example, there’s a new restaurant in town, and the people you work with are raving about the food. Even before you set foot in that restaurant or have lifted that first forkful of food, you now have an opinion. You have positive emotions about that restaurant, simply because you’ve heard language like “great food,” “ambiance” and “the best I’ve ever had.”
We use language all of the time, either as a transmitter of our thoughts and information or as a receiver of others’ thoughts and information. Since you use language anyway, why not use it in an intentional way to get or achieve what you want?
In creating a high-accountability culture, the appropriate language will elevate performance and improve your communication efficiency. Your dialogue will be fast, powerful and complete.
The Four Stages of Language Development
Accountability language is real. It is visible and palpable, and there is a process to learning and using it to help you achieve positive results.
Learning the Language of Accountability is similar to how human beings learn their native language. Toddlers, for example, hear their parents using language. At some point in their development, toddlers may even mimic the sounds their parents are using, even though they don’t know the words or understand the meaning.
Eventually, these little ones begin to connect meanings to words, learn to string them together into sentences and then begin using language to convey their needs or get what they want. That’s one way we learned our native language.
Now, suppose your native language is English and you’re sitting in an airport. The couple next to you is speaking Portuguese, a language you’ve never heard before.
Several weeks later, you’re watching a Portuguese movie with English subtitles and you immediately recognize this as the language the couple had been speaking at the airport. Because you’re a lifelong learner and you are interested in foreign languages, you decide to sign up for a Portuguese course at the local college. By the end of the semester, you have a basic understanding of close to 100 vocabulary words. As you continue to read, study and listen to Portuguese, before long, not only can you understand spoken Portuguese, but you are also beginning to speak it yourself.
The learning process of developing organizational accountability language is very similar to learning a new language. The same four phases of language learning – hearing, recognizing, understanding and speaking – apply.
The Four Steps of Learning a New Language
4. Speaking – this is when organizational change begins
In this chapter, you will discover that as you apply the Language of Accountability, you will model it for your team and others you work with. Eventually, it will be a natural process. Your accountability culture begins, not with the organization changing as a whole but, instead, with the language that you as an individual choose to use. It is through individual change that organizational change occurs and the change begins with you!
Accountability Gaps and How They Grow
You will also discover that high-accountability cultures are something you can see.
To illustrate this, let’s take a professional basketball player, a star of the NBA who, at one time in his career, declared, “I’m not a role model. Parents should be role models.”
We’re not using his name here because that was a goofy thing for any star athlete to say. Because, despite what he thought, there were thousands of children admiring that NBA star, wearing his jersey number, and shooting baskets until dark to become just like him. In the context of accountability, even though he was a top scorer and exciting to watch on the court, you could see that athlete wasn’t a star in the Culture of Accountability.
Now, let’s turn the dial to 1993 and the confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex of the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh in Waco, Texas.
On April 19, 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno gave the FBI permission to flush the Davidians out of their residence, using tanks to smash holes in the walls of the building and then spraying tear gas into the residence. Agents then fired more than 350 “ferret” grenades into the building, but none of the Davidians obeyed the FBI’s command to exit the residence. A fire then broke out and 76 Davidians, including 27 children, perished.
As word of the confrontation and resulting deaths made the evening news, Janet Reno stepped up to the microphone at a White House press conference. “I made the decision,” she said. “I’m accountable. The buck stops with me.” Her words were notable – and noticeable – because you rarely hear politicians speak this way. At that time, she was the first female U.S. attorney general and fairly new to her job. Yet, in the face of a tragic and controversial situation, she stepped forward and was accountable. You could see that Janet Reno was exhibiting an accountability culture that was the model for her entire organization.
So, what does a high-accountability culture look like? Accountability cultures do not happen overnight. The culture evolves from one person or event to the next.
One common denominator is that in accountability cultures, everyone holds each other accountable for their commitments in a positive and productive manner.
Earlier, we asked if you had ever had a relationship or a project fail. If you answered, “Yes,” chances are high that failure occurred because specificity was missing at the front end and expectations weren’t clear. That relationship or that project failed because there were “accountability gaps.”
Accountability gaps are like potholes in a road. The gaps are holes that need to be filled quickly with specificity before greater damage is done. Just like potholes in the road need to be filled quickly with paving materials before the holes become so large that they damage the cars on the road, an “accountability gap” exists when specificity is missing.
Let’s take poor Max, who was hired by a large company. His boss told him, “Max, we’re glad to have you on the team, and as long as you do a good job, your employment with us is solid.” Unfortunately, his boss didn’t tell Max, specifically, what a good job looked like (count this as one pothole). When Max headed the team for a major project, the boss said, “Get that final report to me as soon as you can.” Once again, did that mean tomorrow or next week? Max did his best but the report was several days tardy in his boss’s eyes (another pothole).
By the time Max was fired, his tenure was rutted with potholes, lacking specificity and becoming deeper and causing more damage as the weeks and months went by.
Max failed because there was specificity missing in every expectation and assignment. Nothing was clearly stated at the front end, and when there’s no specificity on the front end, Max was set up to fail.
But, let’s not throw Max’s boss under the bus just yet. Max made a big mistake, as well. He “assumed” he knew what the boss meant when he was told to “do a good job” and to get the report completed “as soon as you can.” Assumptions dig deep potholes and are great contributors to accountability gaps leading to a failed project or relationship, and these lead to bad feelings, which become a vicious cycle of dysfunction. Accountability is a two-way street. If you complete a task that was not specific and someone is disappointed in your work, you are the one who is considered unreliable. You’re past the point of no return. It’s too late for expectations. It’s a “gotcha” of the worst kind in every sense.
It is the role of both the sender and the receiver of the information to make sure all the potholes are filled before the task begins.
Henry Evans, is Managing Partner of Dynamic Results, author of the best-selling book, “Winning with Accountability: the Secret of Language of High Performing Organizations” and co-author of “Step Up, Lead In Six Moments That Matter”. Follow him on Twitter, @HenryJEvans.
Thank you for reading the first (of three) installments of chapter three. Next month, we’ll continue with more free content from our best-selling book “Winning With Accountability, The Secret Language of High Performing Organizations“. In that article, we will expose the “glossary of failure”™, or put simply: the language which leads to relationship and project failure.
The preceding text is copyrighted material from the best-selling book; “Winning with Accountability, the Secret Language of High Performing Organizations.”