“Freaking Out” May Be a Sign Employees are Close to Accountability

Accountability is when employees take true ownership of a situation; including their mistakes. But accountability isn’t a matter of “either you are or you aren’t.” There are actually four stages that lead to accountability starting with denial, blame, excuses and finally, positioned closest to accountability, there’s anxiety.

Each stage looks and sounds a little different. In denial, the boss tends to be the last one to get bad news. With blame there’s a lot of name-calling: “It’s not my fault; it’s Bob’s.” Excuses tend to get assigned to forces beyond the employee’s control, like a new process or broken equipment. And anxiety is where we hear folks sounding panicked: “This is too much” or “How are we supposed to accomplish all this?” or “We’ll never pull it off; we’ve tried it before and it didn’t work.” 

Anxiety often misdiagnosed as opposition

Anxiety is an interesting phase because it’s so often misdiagnosed. When people are freaking out, they can look oppositional. But oftentimes they’re not so much oppositional as they are scared. Let’s say you’re implementing a new change initiative, for example. When you hear people say things like “This is too much” or “We’re never going to be able to pull this off,” it’s natural to say “This person is resisting, they’re oppositional and trying to derail the whole thing.” But in many cases, employees are just feeling and reacting to anxiety.

It’s important to diagnose the anxiety stage correctly because responding with anger when people are feeling anxious tends to make the situation worse. Remember, these folks are not that far away from accountability, you may only need to alter your approach a little bit to get them to take the leap to accountability. And your first task is to make them feel less overwhelmed by breaking into bite size chunks whatever you’re dealing with so they can handle it more effectively.

This can be done as simply as saying “Listen, let’s break this up and take it one step at a time.”  This dials back the anxiety by making the challenge the employee is facing seem less insurmountable. And it lets the employee know they don’t have to solve the entire world’s problems right this minute, they just have to solve part A.

Lessen employee anxiety with a “do it right the second time” culture

The best leaders also encourage a “do it right the second time “culture to lessen employee anxiety. When employees are scared of “what might happen” if they make a mistake, it can incent even high performers to stay silent about and/or cover up mistakes. Too many leaders let their own fears of “what might happen” get in the way of instilling a spirit of “do it right the second time.” Good employees aren’t going to misuse it as an excuse to goof off or underperform. And if your expectations of accountability are clearly communicated, neither will your lower performers.

Eliminating the fear of making mistakes and turning errors into learning opportunities that inspire root-cause problem solving provides all employees with new and valuable learning opportunities. Plus it helps ensure the same mistakes don’t happen again. You can implement this right into your organizational performance expectations or code of conduct: “If I am unsure about something, or uncover an unexpected problem, I take immediate action to remedy the situation and to bring it to the attention of others in order to avoid the problem in the future.”

Anxiety can sound terrible, but it’s actually a good indicator that your people are showing signs of ownership. They’re acknowledging there’s an issue and they’re not falling back on blame or excuses. And with a little help you can quickly move them past “total freak out” mode to “I’ve got it all handled.”

For more tips on moving employees past anxiety and into accountability, join us for our upcoming webinar “How To Be Inspiring & Motivating in Tough Times.”

Mark Murphy is the New York Times Bestselling author and Founder of Leadership IQ.

Click here to see Mark’s upcoming webinars.

Mark leads one of the world’s largest leadership training and employee engagement studies, and his work has appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post. Mark has also been a featured guest on programs including CBS News Sunday Morning, ABC’s 20/20, Fox Business News and NPR.

Mark’s leadership training and employee engagement surveys have yielded remarkable results for organizations such as Harvard Business School, Aflac, Charles Schwab, Microsoft, IBM, MasterCard, Merck, MD Anderson Cancer Center, FirstEnergy, Volkswagen and Johns Hopkins.

Mark’s best-selling books included Hiring for Attitude, Hundred Percenters, and HARD Goals.

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