Erica Pinsky



Put the Snakes on the Table

Thoughts on Extracting Accountability


Have you given much thought to the notion of behavioural accountability in your workplace?


We often hear about the importance of holding employees accountable.  That expression seems to imply that something, or more commonly, someone external to that employee, is responsible for ensuring that an employee lives up to her/his end of the employment contract.  It expresses a cultural norm with respect to power and empowerment within an organization.


I would also argue that it speaks to a reactive, rather than a proactive norm within an organization.  It often means that those in positions of hierarchical power, managers and supervisors, (individuals I prefer to refer to as workplace leaders), are charged with a responsibility of monitoring or overseeing what others are doing.  When those “others” make a mistake, when they fail to do something that they are supposed to, the leader has to “hold them accountable.”


Most of the time that means some sort of punitive or disciplinary response, with a threat of more severe work related consequences if the mistake, problem, or error is not corrected.  An unintended consequence of this approach is that often the only time an employee meets with her/his leader is when that leader needs to “hold her/him accountable,” to point out what she/he is doing wrong and make sure she/he knows that it better not happen again.


It is not really brain surgery to figure out that the by-product of such an approach is fear.  While I have never seen fear listed as an organizational value, the fact is that fear-based cultures are more the norm than the exception.  I can assure you that disrespectful behaviour is also often a cultural norm in fear based cultures.  It’s a bit like a chicken and egg situation - hard to know which one came first.


Another critical fact is that fear based cultures don’t produce high performing, innovative, responsive or sustainably successful organizations.


One thing I discovered when I conducted my interviews with Employers of Choice for Road to Respect was a commonality with respect to an expectation of behavioural accountability.  It starts with a proactive approach, which focuses on ensuring that everyone understands what is expected of them, not just with respect to their job duties but with respect to their personal behaviour and workplace conduct.  The conversation about behavioural accountability, the notion of each individual being responsible for her/his workplace behaviour, and beyond that, responsible for acting in accordance with organizational values, starts in the hiring process.


Certainly leaders are “held accountable,” however, what they are “held accountable” for is empowering their team members to be individually accountable.  Leaders are accountable for creating teams where behavioural accountability is a norm: where employees know that it is their responsibility not only to align their behaviour with corporate values but to speak up when they have an issue or problem as well as when they notice others whose behaviour is not reflective of those values.


As I heard from Carolynne Warner at Sasktel “If I see a team member who does not demonstrate the corporate values, I need to ask myself, what is my response?... If I see you demonstrating a lack of respect, as your team member I am responsible to bring it to your attention.”  She went on to say “We expect there will be conflict, but we also expect that it will be dealt with.”  At Sasktel they have a process which “gives people the tools and the permission to hold each other accountable.”


I heard a similar idea expressed when I interviewed Janine North, CEO of Northern Development Trust.  If you read last month’s post, you may recall that Ms. North talked about the importance of leaders “extracting accountability.”


Take a moment to consider the difference between a leader who “holds others accountable” and one who “extracts accountability” from her/his direct reports.  It implies a very different kind of power dynamic as well as a different kind of leadership style.


After our recorded interview concluded I asked Ms. North to tell me a bit more about how she “extracts accountability,” particularly with respect to empowering employees to speak up about workplace conflict.


What I learned is that one of the cultural norms she institutes wherever she works is what she referred to as “keeping short accounts.”  Consistent with what I heard from other Employers of Choice, the conversation about personal accountability starts in the hiring process.  “One of the things we talk about in the hiring interview is how we keep short accounts with each other: we don’t allow things to fester.  When we have an issue with someone, we always raise the issue with that person privately.  It’s about making sure to put the snakes on the table; you don’t let them crawl around in the grass and bite you.  The idea is to bring daylight to every issue.  We keep short accounts: we bring issues up respectfully and we celebrate how good that makes us feel.”


Ms. North told me that early in her career she heard that expression about putting the snakes on the table and “it really resonated with me.”  Soon afterwards she was vacationing in Mexico and found a colourful snake, which has been on her desk ever since.  It serves as a visual reminder both to her and her team.  “It is a piece of humour that you can use to have an honest respectful workplace where people feel free to work through issues.  It is a phrase that brings lots of coachable moments.”


As a result, everyone knows what is meant by the phrases “keep short accounts” and “put the snakes on the table.”  They have become part of the corporate vernacular.  “If anyone is griping we remind them to keep short accounts.  It is ingrained in our culture – put the snakes on the table.”


Here’s what I heard when I asked Ms. North about her choice to bring the snake to work and keep it on her desk.  “I instituted this because it is who I am.  I want to work with people who are caring and upfront with each other and are accountable to each other.”


When people care about each other, when they are accountable to each other, fear diminishes as a behavioural motivator.  There is a norm of behavioural accountability: a shared responsibility to “hold ourselves and other accountable.”  The result is an empowered workplace, where employees feel a sense of personal responsibility and ownership, a workplace where the obligation to speak up about issues, concerns, problems and business opportunities simply becomes “the way it is around here.”


I’ve worked with many leaders over the past 15 years.  Very few spring out of bed in the morning eagerly anticipating a conversation where they have to “hold someone accountable.”


Make a choice to start a different conversation in your workplace – one that focuses on creating a culture of behavioural accountability where everyone feels a sense of personal responsibility for speaking up, resolving issues and creating a respectful, high performing culture.


I’m pretty sure you could find a snake at the dollar store to keep on your desk.  I am quite confident that Ms. North won’t mind if you do


 available as a PODCAST

Pinsky’s writing style makes this book an easy read for managers, decision-makers, human resource professionals and business owners and anyone else interested in building a respectful workplace. She provides tangible advice interwoven with the stories of real organizations who demonstrate on a daily basis the value of promoting a respectful workplace. Pinsky ensures that readers can glean from the book information they need to take action. A respectful  workplace culture is a road “paved” over time with trust and support; and Pinsky’s book provides the tools you need to arrive at your destination.

Catherine M. Mattice
President, Civility Partners, LLC & SME on Workplace Bullying