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Ensure team accountability with mindful agreements

by | Dec 11, 2023

Common Patterns in Leadership

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. Fear-based niceness often leads to an amiable but chaotic, underperforming, even political team or organisation. Professional aggression often leads to burnout, alienation and disengagement.

When I’ve pushed these leaders to look deeper into why they are engaging in these self-defeating behaviours, 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.  

Interestingly, in both dynamics above, the simplest starting point for breaking the cycles is setting clear agreements with people. Please note the use of the word ‘agreement’ rather than ‘expectation’. People want to know what’s expected of them. But rather than imposing edicts, a

higher level is to create mutual agreements, both with direct reports and with colleagues. Take time to be awake and consciously upfront with people, not fearful or avoidant. We are not born to be slaves and when our boss takes the time to be mindful with expectations and

agreements, it is deeply honouring. 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.

One team from a large consultancy we were working with was experiencing real tension around performance and customer support levels. It all boiled down to a lack of clarity and agreement in the team on what good customer service actually looked like. 

Some people made it a rule to always get back to customers within 24 hours of any email, even if only with a simple, ‘We received your email and will get back to you’ response. Others responded to clients only when they were able to resolve their request, which could take up to two weeks. The team members who responded in 24 hours got progressively angrier with their ‘lazy’ peers who ‘didn’t really care about the clients’. They pretended it was fine, but when a distressed client or two called them, they ‘lost it’ with the ‘lazy’ team members. 

The reasoning of the ‘lazy’ members was that the ‘24-hour’ group were ‘over the top’ and creating unnecessary, excessive work. Only when they all got together and asked, ‘What do we agree great customer service looks like exactly?’ that the tension was resolved. They decided a 48-hour minimum would be the standard for responding to all client requests, even if it was only a ‘We’re working on it’ response. 

This eased the tension, but also created a simple accountability mechanism by which people could remind others to stay in the 48 hours or, if it was breached, to have a healthy but tough conversation around the importance of the standard. 

It’s a simple example, and of course some topics can be much tougher, for example on budget allocation or strategic changes. But the key here is that agreements are made and kept in teams. This reliably and consciously supports trust and psychological safety. 

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.

‘Joe, we have a standard here that we respect each other. This means we don’t criticise people behind their back. I have observed you speaking critically of Mary to others. Our policy helps us create a safe environment. Whenever you have a problem with Mary, please either take it straight to her, or bring it to me first so we can resolve it and not create discontentment in the team.’

Clarity on behavioural standards is essential for constructive agreements, as illustrated in the following examples:

Unmindful agreement: ‘I need you to care about your job more.’

Mindful agreement: ‘You have not completed your last two projects on time. We have a standard of personal excellence here. Among other things, this means we complete our projects by the agreed-upon time. Please make sure to complete your next project on time.’

Unmindful agreement: ‘You need to work with team members better.’

Mindful agreement: ‘We place a high priority on teamwork. One way to ensure this is through our weekly accountability meetings. I haven’t seen you at the past two meetings. Please attend all team meetings.’ 

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. Mutual agreements lend the courage of objective clarity to leader–team member relationships. 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.

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