Hiding in Plain Sight

February 1st, 2014  | 

Published in Accountability

Two films – “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lone Survivor” – provide moviegoers with insight into the elite combat units of the U.S. Navy SEALs.

The SEALs – Sea, Air, Land teams – trace their beginnings to World War II when the need for covert reconnaissance of landing beaches intensified. Over time, the teams evolved to include the demolition of enemy landing defenses and, ultimately, to commando-type raids.

An early SEAL team member, in describing their work, said, “We were ready to what nobody else could do, and what nobody else wanted to do.”

Make no mistake. Most of us do not face life and death issues on the job. Yet when problems arise in the workplace, do you find yourself relying on a small team of committed employees?

Character Counts

In his book Lone Survivor that inspired the movie of the same name, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell writes:

The work of Navy SEALs is brutally hard, the fitness regimes are as harsh and uncompromising as any program in the free world. The examinations are searching and difficult. Nothing but the highest possible standard is acceptable in the SEAL teams.

It’s harder to become a Navy SEAL than it is to get into Harvard Law School.  Different, but harder.

And perhaps above all, your character is under a microscope at all times; instructors, teachers, senior chiefs, and officers are always watching for the character flaw, the weakness which may one day lead to the compromise of your teammates.  We can’t stand that. We can stand damn near anything, except that.

Character counts in your organization, too.  Or, rather, you say it does.

For my new book – Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Organization (McGraw-Hill) – I surveyed more than 3,200 executives worldwide. When asked, 80 percent said “we do what’s right for our customers, employees, sup­pliers, and owners, even when it hurts.” And 76 percent said “we are accountable for our performance and accept responsibility for our mistakes.”

But when asked specific questions. the good intentions executives said existed inside their organizations were practiced with less consistency.

For example, the numbers drop to 66 percent who “strongly agree” or “agree” that “our values are easy to understand and simple to remember.” The implication of this statistic is that one person in three—even among an organization’s leaders—doesn’t fully understand the principles used as a basis for making decisions and driving individual and organizational behavior.

The numbers drop further to 58 percent who “strongly agree” or “agree” that “accountability isn’t just top-down; everyone knows they are accountable to one another.” The implication of this statistic is that 4 of every 10 employees view holding people accountable as the responsibility of the supervisor – not the peer.

When employees operate in their own world with little sense of shared responsibility with their coworkers for making sure things are done right, on time, and on budget, the performance of the organization suffers.

Imagine the new levels of performance you can attain when everyone in the organization – not just management, midlevel executives and supervisors – views holding one another accountable as an essential part of their daily duties.

Character Revealed

Our actions are the outward expression of our character.

The character of underperformers in your organization is revealed by these techniques:

  • Delegates every decision up, down or sideways. Believes the absence of decision-making reduces their exposure to risk.
  • Unwilling to develop systems, believing that the mystery of how they do – or do not – perform creates job security.
  • Ready with a reason – aka an excuse – to explain why activities previously committed to remain incomplete or not completed to the agreed-upon standard.

I’ve talked with executives who believe an organization chart is little more than a theoretical exercise.

Not so.  An organization chart is another tool smart leaders use to create clarity around roles and responsibilities.

Is your org chart – or lack of one – giving someone on your payroll a hiding place?

Under-performers don’t like clarity, specifics and measures to track performance because there’s no place to hide.

SEALs call this person the “Gray Man.”

During the punishing training that all candidates must survive to become a Navy SEAL, the Gray Man “was the guy who blended into the group. Never the best guy, but also not the worst, the Gray Man always met the standards, exceeding them rarely, and stayed invisible,” writes Mark Owen, a pseudonym for a former Navy SEAL, in No Easy Day, the book on which “Zero Dark Thirty” is based.

Because the instructors could not be with the candidates all the time, they relied on peer feedback “to get a better sense of who was really performing well. The instructors took our top-five-bottom-five [assessment] and compared them with their lists. Our assessment contributed to the fate of a candidate because it drew a clearer picture” of a candidate.

Consider the following questions:

  1. How is our character revealed?  Do we hire and promote based on our values, or do we look mostly at skills and technical ability? Do our values serve as a filter for decisions? Do we rely on our firm’s values to help us address underperformance? Do our values reflect our real behavior? Or are they just cheap words?
  2. What’s our view of accountability?  Is accountability viewed as a top-down process? Or bottom-up and side-to-side?
  3. How easy or difficult is it to speak truth to power in our organization?  Do we get the news we need to know?  Or are we surprised when bad things happen and good people leave?

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”

By contrast, SEAL teams operate at peak performance because they are trained to do so, and because each person counts on the character of those on his team to do the things they are responsible for doing.

Which team is yours?

About the Author: Greg Bustin is an executive coach, consultant and speaker who has delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents. www.bustin.com Greg advises leaders at some of the world’s most admired companies, and his views about leadership have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive, Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., Investor’s Business Daily, Leader to Leader, and other major publications. He’s written five leadership books. His newest book, How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices (Sourcebooks), examines decision-making in history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies. How Leaders Decide

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