Harry Nelson

Popularity versus Accountability

Whenever I explain what a culture of compliance looks like, I talk about three underlying foundational values:  transparency, accountability, and integrity.  You can’t sustain a healthy culture of compliance unless people understand their responsibility for all three. It took me a long time to realize the extent to which I had work to do on living these values.

The challenge is that, in the context of what you need another person to do, transparency and accountability can conflict with making people happy.  Early in my career, post-law school, I discovered that my internal need to be appreciated served me well at work.  I worked hard to be of service and do great work, seeking the approval of my mentors.  As my career progressed, the focus shifted to clients:  I pushed myself, took calls and meetings at all hours, and bent over backwards to earn their approval and loyalty.  I focused on other people’s needs.

It isn’t just, or even primarily, about the work ethic.  One epiphany came for me when I questioned a client on why he was hiring me.  The client was already working with a nationally respected healthcare lawyer who I knew, and I asked why he wanted me to take over. He responded, “I did my research, and I know how good [X] is, but I also know from our conversations that you know this stuff as well as [X] does.   The real reason for the switch is that [X] leaves me cold.  When I talk to you, I can tell you’re ‘in it’ with me, and my anxiety just lifts.  I can get back to my work and my life.”  It takes an emotional investment in the client and the work to give people that level of peace of mind.

Every so often, though, I would find that doing great work and being empathic  weren’t enough.  For some people, no matter how hard we work or how good the work is, they are unsatisfied.  Most of the time, the issue is cost.  The bill was too high. People didn’t appreciate how much time the work took or how much the bill was. Years ago, these responses would drive me bananas.  I would feel like my effort had been in vain, that I had made big mistake in getting so invested in the problem of someone who didn’t appreciate me and my work.  I would be angry at the client and at myself for misjudging the client.  I would feel taken advantage of.

The breakthrough on this issue for me came a few years ago, while reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Temptations of a CEO.  Lencioni writes about five forms of self-deception that get in the way of effective leadership.  When I read the book, four of the traps that Lencioni described were things that I recognized in other people:

  • Getting so caught up in the status of the leadership role they had earned that people lose sight of the continued need to drive results, which earned the leadership role in the first place;
  • Being slowed by an insistence on certainty and failing to take timely action based on clarity;
  • Being overly concerned with maintaining harmony across a team at the expense of healthy expression of conflict; and
  • Getting so caught up in projecting invulnerability and being “right” that people can’t trust each other enough to acknowledge weaknesses and mistakes.

Maybe colleagues would evaluate me more harshly, but I actually think I do pretty well on the foregoing leadership pitfalls.  The fifth temptation, however, felt like Lencioni was writing specifically about me:  the temptation of being so worried about being popular that you fail to hold people accountable.  I could describe a hundred different incidents that exemplify this personal failing.  Many of them revolve around colleagues who underperformed.  My feeble attempts to talk to them about deficiencies in their work came across so gently that I failed to get the point across.  I learned too well from one of my mentors, who told me to deliver criticism in a “negative sandwich”:   begin with something positive about the person, discuss the performance problem in the middle, and then close with something positive to take the sting away.  I sugarcoated my evaluations with underperformers so much that they didn’t even register there was a problem until we let them go.

Over the years since I began to understand this personal pitfall, I’ve learned I’m not alone on this one.  Many service professionals, in particular, share that same emotional need to be valued.  The problem for me and everyone who shares this dynamic is that it leads us to pull punches and not call people out on behavior that’s inconsistent with our needs.  We shy away from confronting people in our lives who don’t act the way we want or need.  In the process, we aren’t transparent about communicating expectations out of fear that doing so may lead to rejection.

One of the big lessons for me has been that choosing likeability over accountability (and, innherently, transparency), whether with colleagues, clients, or anyone else, creates a ticking time bomb, a lack of integrity that will need to be addressed eventually.  It breeds resentment, frustration, and, ultimately, dishonest relationships.  After all, relationships only work when they meet both people’s needs, and can’t possibly happen if you aren’t direct with people about what you need.

This has led me to three key expectations that I try to clarify upfront to make sure we have successful working relationships:  First, clients (and anyone I work) need to appreciate me (or our team and how I (we) operate.  The easy people to filter out are those for whom gratitude is just not part of their emotional vocabulary.  Sometimes, you catch an obvious red flag, like a new client who starts getting to know us by badmouthing someone who worked with them.  Often, it’s just a matter of paying attention.  My favorite word on the subject came years ago from a friend, Abigail Pickus (quoting Rhoda Weisman): “if you only listen, people will tell you everything you need to know.”  The signs are there.  The question is whether we choose to pay attention or ignore them.

The real challenge is identifying the more complicated issue of clients who don’t appreciate how we operate and how we charge for our time.  In some cases, people are looking for something different than we offer.  A client wants a lower cost provider.  We aren’t the most expensive option, but we are also aren’t the least expensive.  Lack of appreciation for what we do, how we operate, how much we cost are going to be a problem.  The key to success I’ve learned it to be clear and transparent at the beginning and not shy away from being direct in the face of statements or behavior that are inconsistent with an appreciative relationship.

Second, we need to work with people who are able and willing to pay for the help they need.  There is an ocean of need for help out there, but only a subset with the resources to pay for the help needed.  Our ability to do what we do hinges on clients who are accountable and pay promptly.  We can occasionally choose to take cases on a pro bono or “low bono” basis, but this has to be an affirmative choice in an exceptional circumstance. Our economic survival hinges on holding clients accountable.

Third, we need to work with people who follow our advice.  When people don’t do what we recommend, things are likely to go badly.  This is an integrity deficit that will reflect poorly on us if we’re not careful.  I recently watched a client organization implode as the client continued to escalate a dispute with government regulators long after we had urged that the only path forward was to acknowledge the regulators’ grievances and earn their trust.  There is too a big risk that we end up with egg on our face when clients don’t do what we say or use our advice as “window dressing.”

Strong relationships are forged in transparency and accountability.  Many longtime relationships have grown stronger  over the years, based on a history of dependability, trust, and give and take.  There’s nothing more valuable than the ability to be vulnerable and get open and honest feedback that helps us learn how we can do better.

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