I embraced the first 10 years of my career with enough passion and intensity to sink a ship. I was Captain Accountability. I demanded excellence from myself and from everyone else around me. And for a long time I pointed to these attributes as my greatest strengths. I underscored them in my constant griping about the unfairness of my situation. You see, for what seemed to me like no good reason at all, I wasn’t getting ahead. I spent the better part of a decade stuck in middle management quick sand. I got passed over for one promotion after another in spite of the fact I was highly intelligent, skillful and passionate. It just didn’t add up.
And then one day a colleague of mine pulled me aside and let me in on a painful little secret. I can still hear him now.
“Brendan …” he eked out in the kind of soft voice normally reserved for doctors delivering bad news, “… you make people uncomfortable. You push people too hard. You’re not getting promoted because nobody can stand the thought of you having any real authority.”
Umm… what? My world crumbled around me.
I learned the hardest and most important career lesson of my life that day. One I will never forget and that I feel compelled to share with my fellow managers and aspiring executives:
When it comes to advancing your career, you’re better served building a reputation for helping people than for holding them accountable.
Let’s start with some context. Accountability has been a business best practice forever. Holding people accountable is a universal must-do in management circles. As managers it’s been drilled into us for years in every seminar, training course and career blog. Any prudent manager must drive people to perform and demand accountability and excellence from peers. This certainly sounds good in theory but I don’t believe any of this to be true in practice.
In reality, holding people accountable is another under-scrutinized management principle we’ve allowed to spiral out of control. While it makes perfect sense why the corporate entity benefits from employees and managers holding each other accountable, it makes almost no sense for your own career advancement. In my experience, there is much more to be gained by being seen as a mentor than as a task master. Visible acts of mentorship build an image of leadership and make people want to work with and for you. In practice, people gravitate to, hire, and promote individuals they like to be around, not people who demand accountability.
Most corporate cultures reject conflict. As managers we know we should embrace healthy conflict, but in practice we do not. We’ve all read the books and blogs and best practices about the benefits of conflict but as human beings we do not like being held accountable, especially by our peers. When you hold people accountable you elicit an instinctively defensive response as people’s personal objectives always take precedence over corporate objectives. And since people ultimately make up the decision making engine of the company, nine times out of ten, a strategy based on demanding accountability is not the optimal approach to advance your career.
When it comes to doling out accountability, there are two scenarios worth mentioning. The first is holding your employees accountable. Since they report to us, we can hold our staff accountable to a certain extent. But even in this scenario I have had much greater success trying to help versus hold accountable. But for our purposes let’s focus on the second scenario which is where most managers get into trouble. Holding yours peers accountable. In my opinion this is a career limiting strategy for most of us. For starters, you do not have legitimate power over your peers. You can’t force them to be accountable unless they acquiesce – and you can’t fire them. In a perfect world your peers always do what is best for the company. They are all open to criticism and feedback. They demand accountability of themselves and others. But that is not the world we work in.
In the real world, your peers will never do what’s best for the company when it’s at odds with what is best for them personally – nor should they in my opinion. So when you are tough on them or hold them accountable for work quality or deadlines, you enter into a very limited upside proposition. You can’t actually win much of anything by holding people accountable. The best possible outcome is they deliver what was expected in the first place and you may benefit in some small way as a result. But the downside potential is much more devastating. You can lose allies in the organization. You can alienate yourself. You can be perceived as disruptive or difficult. These are much harder to bounce back from than a delayed project or low quality output.
Instead of holding people accountable I recommend helping them. Mentoring and support for your peers is a great way to accomplish two objectives simultaneously. First off, if you offer your help with sincerity you can often get your project or issue back on track anyways. Pushing people is rarely the fastest way to getting the output you want. Demonstrating empathy is a much stronger play in my experience. Secondly, if you demonstrate your help and support to key company influencers, you build the image of leadership which is vital to your career advancement. When people see you helping your peers it positions you above them in the minds of others – as crass as that may sound. Helping your peers is a win-win for you.
Despite its near universal acceptance, holding people accountable is not the optimal career strategy it might appear to be. It took me a long time to learn how much more powerful an image of helpfulness can be for your career. But when I finally did, my career started to take off. My colleagues started rooting for my success, key executives started thinking of me as a leader and then magically the promotions started to come. So next time your colleague is late on a project or delivers work with questionable quality, or lets you down, try helping them instead of holding them accountable.
– Brendan Reid(@brendanmreid)is an accomplished business consultant and marketing executive who has built a career by breaking with corporate convention. He is currently a senior executive at a high growth technology firm. He is author of Stealing the Corner Office (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
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