Articles

Ability and Accountability and the Hard and Soft Mistakes

February 06, 2021 - By Peter Jordan, Associate, BA History, Geography and Environmental Science, BA Hons History

A central precept of Legitimate Leadership is that a leader gains the trust of his subordinates by the provision of care and growth. Care and growth is actualised by the leader giving people the means and ability to do the job and then holding them appropriately accountable for performance. Once this is consistently demonstrated over a period of time, the leadership of the manager becomes legitimate.

Ability is provided by structured feedback, coaching and training, both on and off the job. Accountability happens when managers provide consequence for performance: reward for exceptional performance, recognition of consistent performance on or above standard; censure for performance which is below standard and discipline for misconduct and repeated carelessness. Reward and recognition constitute positive accountability whereas censure and discipline constitute negative accountability. The above is always applied relative to a clear standard.

The hard and soft mistakes typically occur in the application of negative accountability.

The hard mistake occurs when the manager applies negative accountability under circumstances where adequate means and ability have not been put in place. The soft mistake is committed where means and ability are in fact in place but the manager fails to hold the subordinate accountable for under performance, carelessness or misconduct.

The soft mistake may take the form of taking no action or in mistakenly attributing the negative exception to means or ability (most often the latter).

In the context of two clients in South Africa with which we have engaged over the last year both the hard and soft mistakes were widely prevalent, at least at the start of the interventions.

In many respects the two clients could not be more different. One is in the motor industry whereas the other is in the chemical manufacturing sector. Initially the client in the motor industry was inclined towards the hard mistake. Here people were often “thrown in the deep end” and then dismissed after three months for mistakes or for missing targets. Ironically, the soft mistake was also not uncommon in this organisation. Typically this took the form of condoning misconduct due to the perpetrator being a “star performer” or in some way being regarded as indispensable.

Clearly both the hard and soft mistakes undermined trust in management.

Committing the hard mistake was almost unknown within the chemical manufacturing business. In fact, the application of negative accountability was conspicuous by its absence despite performance which was on the whole below standard. This had the effect of both encouraging mediocrity and undermining managerial credibility.

What both organisations had in common at the onset of our interventions was that training and development was perceived as very inadequate. In other words the ability component of legitimate leadership was seen to be severely wanting. This was apparent from leadership surveys in the motor industry and by extensive multi-level interviews at the chemical manufacturer.

In both cases this concern about inadequate training proved to be only partly valid.

In the case of the motor industry there were in fact numerous relevant courses, covering a wide spectrum of business applications, and training facilities were of a high standard. Courses were scheduled by a centralised training function and communicated well in advance. Why then was there the poor perception of training by employees? The following were the main causes:

  • Favouritism was perceived regarding who was sent on courses and development programmes.
  • Related to the point above was that people in sales were perceived to be favoured above those in other business functions.
  • Managers were often reluctant to send their subordinates on training due to work pressures and/or cancelled training at the last minute.
  • Whereas in some instances personal development plans did exist, these were never communicated to employees, giving rise to the perception that management did not take employee development seriously.
  • The hard mistake was committed by holding people accountable in positions before they had undergone the prescribed training.

What appeared initially as a training deficit, falling within the ability spectrum of leadership, proved to be more of an accountability issue. This applied for the following reasons:

  • Managers were too results focussed and failed to see that the provision of ability to their subordinates was one of their key accountabilities.
  • Managers also failed to appreciate that communication is a key accountability.
  • Historically managers were not held accountable for failing to send people on training or for ensuring that development plans existed.

The remedy to the situation therefore did not lie with training materials, facilities or systems but rather with changing the accountability culture of the organisation.

In the case of the chemical manufacturer it was found that some excellent training manuals and related materials existed and that these had recently been revised by a senior person in the technical function. Some systems and procedures around training existed but were arguably in need of improvement.

The fundamental problem was that these materials were largely unused and certainly not used in a systematic way. The reasons for this can be encapsulated under the headings of means and accountability.

Means: The area, being a major hazardous installation and  consisting of several plants over an extensive area, had only one dedicated trainer. This person’s role had become increasingly administrative over time. This in response to the need to cater for ever increasing compliance issues and the hunger of head office for information relating to black economic empowerment and Sectorial Education and Training Authority (SETA) requirements. The trainer therefore literally did not have time to do any training or to assist line managers in the application of the excellent training materials which were in place.

Accountability: Similar to the other organisation managers were not held adequately accountable for the training of the people and many did not view this has a high priority. This was also encouraged by the prevalence of the soft mistake in the organisation. The situation whereby the trainer was disempowered from delivering a real training service was tolerated for a long time. Thus the structures above the trainer were not held accountable for the provision of the service they were contracted to provide. Herein are also echoes of the soft mistake.

In conclusion, dysfunctions which appear initially to be ability issues (remediable by training and coaching) are very often more attributable to the lack of accountability, or inappropriate accountability (such as the hard and the soft mistakes), in the organisation. This was the case particularly at the motor retail company. In the case of the chemical manufacturing entity there were indeed dysfunctions within the training system but of equal magnitude was the poor state of accountability for the provision of ability.

Peter Jordan
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