Are you victims of circumstances or accountable owners?

Every day at work, people assign blame, don’t take responsibility for things that happen and relate to the game like they are merely pawns, not powerful players. You almost never hear someone simply say, “I know I said I would do this, but I didn’t.” Instead, you typically get the reasons why they did not do X, Y or Z and a laundry list of justifications due to all the things that are outside of their control.

Consider this case of one Fortune 1000 telecommunications company. In an almost iconic business conflict, the regional teams complained that headquarters (HQ) didn’t understand or care about the real challenges they were facing locally. On the other side, HQ teams complained that the field was selfish. They always saw themselves as unique and entitled. They didn’t understand or care about the bigger corporate challenges. And, instead of being team players, they always pushed for getting what they wanted, when they wanted it.

This deadlock of different agendas and points of view led to a growing frustration where everyone saw themselves as victims of the other. The field team members gossiped about what jerks those guys in HQ were, and the back-channel talk among the HQ team was equally unproductive, and oriented around how the field needed to spend less time complaining and whining and, more time aligning with the corporate strategy and politics.

When, on a rare occasion, the field and HQ teams did engage in discussions to address the issues, only about 20% of the items on the table got talked about, and even this 20% was not discussed openly and effectively, so very little changed.

Over time the HQ team became entrenched in the idea that the field simply can’t collaborate and act like a true partner. As a result, instead of inviting them to participate in key programs and engendering cooperation, they just mandated, dictated and told the field what to do.  This, of course, only provoked and fueled the field’s resentment toward the HQ.

In turn, the field resisted many of the programs that were pushed out from HQ or they simply paid lip service to them. And, while all this was done in quite a subtle and polite way, without confrontation and outbursts, tremendous amounts of energy was wasted — while operational and business objectives went unmet.

I’m sure you see this type of dynamic in your organization too – everyone feeling that they are doing their part, but no one is ensuring that the parts actually produce the whole?!

Why does this happen? Why are teams willing to settle for sub-optimal collaboration, results and the lack of satisfaction that comes with it?

Unfortunately, the answer is simple and everyone knows it – there is a payoff from having a victim mentality!

As long as both parties are wallowing in their mutual complaints about the other, they do not have to fix the situation but rest instead in blame. Everyone is focused on what the other is doing wrong, and no one has to be accountable. Unfortunately, the cost of this tactic is grave both in personal unsatisfaction and unhappiness, as well as in compromised performance and results.

I see this type of dynamic in most organizations, most of the time, between many teams and functions. There are no winners in this dance!

So, how do you transform such mischief into something more productive?

First, let me warn you that taking this on requires Courage and Leadership.

Here are four simple, but powerful steps:

  1. Tell the truth. Telling the truth about what isn’t working is critical for any transformation. You won’t succeed without it. This first step is most challenging, mainly because people are so wrapped up in the pretense that “everything is going well.” Admitting that it isn’t is the toughest thing to do, but, as someone wise once said: “The truth will set you free…”
  1. Express your desire and commitment. Don’t start with a plan, start with a declaration of desire and commitment. Answer the questions: “What do you want?” and “How would you like the partnership to be?” Take a stand. It’s pointless to spend time on a plan before both parties are 100% clear about, and committed to, a shared end result.
  1. Establish clear agreements and practices. The best way to cement a new commitment and turn it into reality is to agree to practices consistent with that new future you are aspiring to, and then put them into action.
  1. Manage and track progress. More than 70% of all big initiatives fail because of lack of execution and followup. Make sure you follow up and review progress frequently, including acknowledging successes and confronting and addressing shortfalls. This is key in order to make sure the new agreements and practices become a new reality.

I know these steps may sound over-simplified, and they probably are. However, if you relate to these as guiding principles and spaces to get through, and you try to bring them about you will see that there is a power in this simple framework.

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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