In government service the word “accountability” has come to mean one thing: somebody needs to be punished. We see it all the time–articles in the paper, stories on the news–so-and-so “should be held accountable” usually means somebody needs to be fired.
The word is so highly charged that most people will RUN from anything that seems remotely related to accountability, but at the same time, beg for support to help to stay on track with their goals.
Over the course of our professional careers, we’ve been taught that the way to get something done is to “punish” someone for not doing it and to get it done better or faster next time, ignore or criticize whatever was accomplished because “it could always be better”.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Imagine a young child going out to his or her little league game. The child steps up to the plate, gets ready to swing, and the coach says, “You better get it right this time or you’re in big trouble”.
With that resounding encouragement (insert sarcastic tone), the youngster hits the ball, and gets all the way to second base. The coach then yells at the child, “It’s about time you hit that ball. What took you so long? Second base was the best you could do (sneer)? You should’ve hit a home run. You’ve still got a loooong way to go, buddy, because nothing counts until you get to home plate”.
How excited or enthusiastic do you think that child is going to be about the rest of the game…or baseball in general?
I’m not saying you or your colleagues are children. I am saying that we all retain elements of that old internal programing. As adults, we use a grown-up version of the same dialogue in an attempt to keep ourselves, and often others, on track. Then we wonder why we’re burned out, frustrated, and pissed off.
Clearly this definition of accountability isn’t actually getting us the positive results we were looking for. How do we know? We keep having the same problems. It’s time to re-define accountability.
Celebrating Incremental Wins
A better approach is to use the framework of accountability to celebrate progress and create “wins”. Recognizing and acknowledging incremental progress creates an upward spiral of energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and…yes… achievement. (Half of you just stopped reading. The other half will resume reading as soon as they stop eye-rolling. Hear me out.)
Everybody knows people respond better to positive reinforcement than punishment. But as soon as we get into the workplace, we think those rules don’t apply. Supervisors assume that if they acknowledge the incremental progress employees are making then the employees will “slack off”. Or, that this idea sounds too much like “everybody gets a trophy”.
When operating from greatness, every step, every action, is cause for celebration. Yes, even celebrating failure. The accomplishment of an intermediate milestone, the recognition that a project is dramatically off-track and needs a course correction, or a team member asking for support because he needs something to move the project forward, are all worthy of celebration.
What went well to reach this point? Celebrate that! (No, I’m not talking about an office party. A “nice job” or 5-second Happy Dance will suffice.)
When we begin to focus on what went well FIRST, the conversations around improvement come from a foundation of “I wonder if/how…” as opposed to “shoulda/coulda/woulda”. That simple change in focus opens up a whole new level of creativity, commitment, and energy.
Give it a Try
Try your own personal experiment. Next time you complete a task, give yourself a little pat on the back, happy dance, fist pump, or “woohoo”. Notice what happens. Did you feel the energy surge? Or, did that voice in your head start saying some very UNnice things: “You don’t deserve to celebrate that. You should have done that last week. You could have done that better”. Remember, what you say to yourself, you say to others regardless of the words that come out of your mouth.
Re-energizing mid-career government employees is our specialty here at Greatness In Government. For more strategies to get your happy back, check out 5 Unexpected Success Principles for Creating Greatness In Government.