Why do so many of us, leaders included, find it difficult to hold people accountable or address issues firmly and directly? I am convinced it’s because we see confrontation as some variation on harsh, intolerant, unkind, aggressive, or uncompassionate, and that we fear creating hard feelings. We feel we have to choose between being understanding and being exacting. There is a strong case to be made, however, for asserting that holding people accountable is, in fact, more compassionate than not doing so; that holding another accountable expresses a vested interest in the other’s success. If done constructively, holding others accountable is one of the best ways to build trust, encourage development, and assure a healthy, functional organization.
Jack Welch has famously affirmed that, “The kindest form of management is the truth”. Consider whether that resonates with you or if it raises a bit of resistance. Now, granted, there is a great deal of variability in how truth gets delivered, and that is really the key issue at hand. According to Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, “Delivering a message clearly, cleanly, and succinctly is essential. In organizations where leaders have developed the courage and skills required to …communicate honestly with coworkers regarding behavior issues, there is far less stress.”
So, what are the keys to confronting another productively and maintaining the kind of accountability required to assure that processes are followed and that the desired organizational culture is maintained? We perhaps caught a glimpse of this when I indicated earlier that holding others accountable expresses a vested interest in their success. For confrontation to be constructive and relationship enhancing it needs to be handled in a way that assures the other we are for them, that we care about them and their goals, and that our feedback is intended to guide them, not attack them. I like to picture the confrontation process as coming alongside the other and inviting them to look at something important with me – to put the issue out in front of us so we can look at it, understand the impact of it, and consider together how to shape the future differently than what we are seeing in the present.
So, effective confrontation as a tool in the service of accountability begins with valuing and caring for the other person and assures them that speaking honestly together about the issue is an act of support and belief in their potential to be better. Let’s not think accountability vs compassion, but rather accountability with compassion.