I’ll bet you never thought you might be lying to your team members or subordinates every day? This may be really startling if honesty is your first core value, as it is mine. Being a loyal Boy Scout I know the first law is “a Scout is trustworthy.” As a Rotarian I know the 4-way test by heart and especially the first one, “Is it the Truth?” So I am quite dismayed that I might be lying every day.

I have been reading a great deal this week about self-deception and read a quote by Patrick Lencioni that got me thinking. He writes in his book The Advantage, “When you tell yourself you’re bad at holding people accountable because you don’t like hurting their feelings, you’re lying.”

Why is this lying? Because we are likely deceiving ourself into thinking that our reluctance to hold someone accountable is based on our desire to be kind to them. What we aren’t admitting to ourself is that “I” don’t want to feel bad delivering the information. It makes me uncomfortable. It causes me stress. So we justify not holding people accountable because of our false perception that we are being kind to the other person. Lencioni goes on to write, “Failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness.” He points out that when we don’t offer feedback and information that could help someone develop because we want to reduce our own stress, we are displaying poor leadership.

How to Create Better Accountability Habits. I think making a habit of holding yourself accountable first will help you hold others accountable. Since I started thinking about this a few days ago, three small situations have occurred where I needed to hold others accountable – three situations that I would have let pass before. One involved missing a deadline, another involved not following very clear instructions, and a third involved poor written communication in an e-mail. All three people are very good people, who work hard, and mean well. But all three deserve to know how they can improve their performance; I owe that to them. The more I hold myself accountable to do this, the more I create better accountability habits. Of course when we do this, we need to think about how we communicate and the best technique for the circumstance at hand.

How to Invite Feedback on a Delicate Issue. One of the most difficult things a leader needs to do is give someone feedback on a delicate issue. Of course we hesitate to do this because we don’t want to hurt their feelings, and, now we know, we ourselves don’t want to feel uncomfortable. One of the best techniques I have heard of comes from a colleague of mine, David Dwyer, who uses a very creative approach. When he becomes aware of a personal issue that he thinks someone needs to work on he asks the person, “if you had a piece of spinach caught in your teeth, would you want me to say something to you?” He tells me everyone says “yes” and is then ready psychologically for feedback – they have “invited” him into their personal space.

An example David shared with me was when we had a very professional manager working for us who often ended her sentences with “…and stuff.” Quite often this happened once or twice in one paragraph. She was a very nice person, someone whose feelings you wouldn’t want to hurt. David opened the conversation with the “spinach” question and then made her aware of her habit, which she hadn’t noticed she was doing. She stopped it immediately, which greatly improved her communication. She was grateful to David for the feedback. By holding himself accountable to have this delicate conversation, David helped a valued manager improve.

A Positive Side Effect. If one of your organizations’ values or principles is honesty or truthfulness - when you hold someone accountable - you strengthen that principle. When everyone gets feedback and are held accountable, people begin to feel the truthfulness of the culture. Sure, sometimes when we’re held accountable it’s uncomfortable, but not dishonest – just the opposite. I think this is a real positive side effect.

As you think about Lencioni’s advice, I encourage you to think about how you can improve your own accountability habits. Because if you don’t, you won’t just be lying to your people, you’ll be lying to yourself.

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