This guest blog post by Kathy Kelly, Master Certified in The Accountability Experience training by Linda Galindo, speaks to the fear often associated with accountability in the workplace and speaking up in organizations…
Campfire stories are great when they are told around an actual campfire, on an actual camping trip. The story teller has free license to make the story as scary and dramatic as possible. Details are added and embellished each time the story is told. The listeners are drawn in and the story sinks deep in their consciousness; perhaps to be repeated by them at some future campfire…with even more fanciful details added.
Campfire stories are not so great when they are told in organizations, about the organization or certain people in them. These are the stories that are told and retold, with added details and embellishment. As each new employee comes on board, the campfire story is repeated, in hushed tones. The stories relate, vaguely, to some part of the culture or people from the past, long gone.
“Watch out for the Senior Management here! They really hate it when people bring new and creative ideas to their attention. In fact, the last person who did was let go that same day.” The story is told for years and years, with new, more dramatic details each time. “If you try to approach middle management with suggestions, it goes in your personnel folder and you are labeled as too aggressive.” “This organization retaliates; there is retribution for stepping out of line.”
When we go into an organization and talk about holding others accountable, asking lots of clarifying questions, and taking the risk to self-empower, often times the participants exchange ominous glances. Then one brave soul, with a face pale at the thought of holding others accountable, says, on the condition of absolute confidentiality, “There would be immediate retribution and retaliation if we tried to do that here.”
Is it true? Or is it a campfire story? Either way, believing it to be true gives people a perfect “excuse” not to implement the accountability tools and behaviors.
If the CEO is asked “Is this true?” the immediate answer is nearly always “Of course not. We value input, questions and clarity from all staff. Why it says so, right in our mission statement.”
But is it true? How can the CEO determine if it is true?
First, it is important to know that once the CEO sets out to find out the truth, expectations are created among staff. Expectations for change and improvements. For instance, if the CEO finds out that there is some basis to the stories of retaliation, then the expectation will be created among the staff that she will make that stop. So, CEO’s, look deep inside and determine if you are going to “own” this process.
So how to determine the truth?
Begin by making it known far and wide that you are going to study the organization’s Campfire Stories. Explain what you mean by this term. Let your senior staff take the question to their staff: is there a Campfire story related to retribution? Ask them to come back to the next senior staff meeting with at least one Campfire Story each. Encourage them to ask their directors, managers, supervisors, and front line staff. If there is a company newsletter, use it to let people know that you want to understand the stories and any basis in fact, especially those related to retribution and/or retaliation.
When the Campfire Stories start to come in, study them. Look for the threads of truth, commonalities and scary details.
In one organization, the former CEO had been very dictatorial, and felt that only he really had any good ideas. He wanted to be surrounded by “yes” men and women, and rewarded them for that behavior. This management style had filtered down through the organization. The new CEO was the exact opposite: collaborative, inclusive and wanted others to challenge her. But the culture throughout the organization continued with the old cultural style. The Campfire Stories still held some scary truths down to the front lines.
Once you determine the whys of the Campfire stories – be accountable. Publicly. Without drama or emotion. Then be clear on what the new culture is and that in the future any hint of retribution or retaliation will be dealt with seriously and immediately. Modeling accountable behaviors will be rewarded.
Create a culture where no one has a Campfire excuse for not acting responsibly and accountably. Let the new stories be about the heroes in the organization who douse the doubt, live in the now, and build raging fires of productivity that draw the best and brightest to them.