During my years of leadership consulting I have met far too many leaders who are acting either from a fear-based niceness or with a heartless ‘professional’ aggression. They have not mastered mindful compassion, nor are they enabling others to act in a way that is truly empowering and uplifting.
I’ve discovered predictable patterns behind each style. The nice leaders are so fearful of disapproval or disconnection that they end up tolerating things they shouldn’t. The aggressive leaders, on the other hand, impose stretch goal after stretch goal without much support, coaching or compassion.
Furthermore, I have also found that most teams fall into one of two stages of development: pseudo-community or chaos. Neither is psychologically safe.
Here’s how author M. Scott Peck describes ‘pseudo-community’: ‘Don’t do or say anything that might offend someone else; if someone else says something that offends, annoys, or irritates you, act as if nothing has happened and pretend you are not bothered in the least. The basic pretense of pseudo-community is the denial of individual differences.’
He describes the stage of ‘chaos’ stage like this: ‘Underlying the attempts to change people is not so much the motive of unity, but instead it is to make everyone normal — and the motive is to win, as the members fight over whose norm might prevail.’
Unfortunately, we find that many teams cycle between these stages, from being nice but avoidant to getting frustrated and getting into ‘winner-takes-all’ arguments. Once these arguments subside, people tend to retreat back into the nice safe ground of pseudo-community. In the context of team accountability, we get low accountability in pseudo-community, then cycle into destructive, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’, blame-based accountability in chaos.
Breaking the cycle can be helped by one simple thing: clear agreements between people. Note that ‘agreements’ are quite different from ‘expectations or demands’. People want to know what’s expected of them. However, simply imposing mandates on team members is not nearly as effective as creating mutual agreements. Clear agreements eliminate confusion, friction and resentment.
Mindful agreements allow teams stuck in pseudo-community to create genuine performance accountability without alienating people. They also allow teams in chaos to hold team members to performance standards with more compassion and support. Instead of pushing or dominating, team members can simply point to the agreement.
Like feedback, mindful agreements are essential to changing organisational behaviours, as they keep the team on track with the behaviours we’re trying to instil.
Mindful agreements respect everyone’s needs
Mindful agreements are conscious contracts between people that honour everyone’s needs equally. They are the critical step to creating environments in which healthy accountability can flow.
Mindful agreements are factual
We can’t hold people accountable for agreements constructively if the agreement itself is not based on observable, measurable behaviour or facts.
For example, suppose a team made an agreement, ‘We respect each other,’ without defining what that means in the team. When team members try to hold people accountable to the standard, it can result in vague accusations, rather than factual observations, so we end up in destructive arguments or avoidance. This is exactly why we spend so much time with clients translating values into observable behaviours.
Since the standard itself is unclear, the feedback is also unclear. But it’s easy to hold people accountable for observable, measurable behaviour. The policy of ‘respect each other’ can be made clear with a standard such as, ‘We don’t speak critically about others behind their back.’
Now when someone breaks the standard, leaders don’t have to shame in vague terms; rather, they can point directly to the objective behaviour. The idea is not to blame or breach psychological safety, but to help bring the often-unconscious behaviours into self-awareness, while balancing compassion with honest feedback.
Constructive feedback creates psychological safety
The foundation of safety and trust is a values-based culture, and at the heart of that is honesty, which is what we want most from leaders. The challenge is that we fear that if we’re honest, we will harm team psychological safety and create conflict and disharmony. On the other hand, if we don’t tell the truth, we erode trust and our relationships become polite but superficial.
Accountability, honesty and respect must be integrated. The research backs this up. Environments with high respect and low accountability (that is, low honesty) experience poor engagement, frustration and distrust. Conversely, in environments with high accountability but low respect, engagement plummets.
For a relationship, team or culture to flourish, they need high honesty and accountability, with high levels of care and respect too.
Mindful agreements, as opposed to edicts and expectations, allow the nice leader to create genuine performance accountability without alienating people. They also allow the aggressive leader to add more compassion and support to the performance standards. Leaders don’t have to push or dominate; they can simply point to the agreement. The nice leaders can more easily be fiercely compassionate, while the tough leaders can avoid the aggression and shaming and be more rational and compassionate.