Tag Archives: accountability

But are they working hard?

Recently, I met with a group of managers who work in an organization moving towards agile methods. People seem to be happy working on cross-functional teams. They solve problems and work things out without management intervention. Best of all, they produce working software that the customers like. This makes the managers happy.

But the managers have a lingering concern: How will we know that senior developers are doing senior level work?  How will we know they aren’t slacking off?

I hear variations on this question in many of the larger organizations I work with.

So let’s unpack what might be going on here.

It could be that these managers have no experience how teams work together to produce results. They don’t have a visceral understanding of what it feels like to say, “We can’t single out one person’s contribution. We did this together.”  Their own experience as managers in the organization reinforces the individual focus. In many organizations, management rewards and incentives leads to local optimization at the expense of over all goals–which obscures the interdependency of their work.

“Manager think” is shaped by emphasis on individual achievement in formative institutions such as schools, and by HR policies within their organizations. For example, individual ranking/rating systems ignore interdependency.  Finely differentiated job grade levels reinforce the notion that its possible to put a neat box around each person’s contribution. Further, they focus attention on “doing my job” –or not doing a job that a more senior (or more junior) person should do–rather than on accomplishing a broader goal–such as delivering customer value.  Narrow functional descriptions (automation tester, exploratory tester, front end tester) have the same effect.

Some people in management believe that if people aren’t pushed, pressured, and held accountable, they’ll slack off.

I have observed that many people are motivated by following through on commitments they themselves make. Many people find time boxes and deadlines useful to prioritize and organize where they spend time and attention. Commitments–made by the people doing the work–and time boxes can be useful structures.

Pressure, pushing, oversight work in a very different way (or, more likely, don’t work).These managers might be worried that people won’t do senior level work if no one is looking.

I actually find the opposite happens more often–people engaged in their work strive and go above and beyond.  OTOH, sometimes people create the appearance of striving (and doing senior level work) when they are pushed, pressured, and “held accountable.”

Here are some of the “senior level” things I would expect to see on a thriving team.

  • pairing
  • mentoring
  • informal lunch and learns
  • looking for patterns of problems in the code
  • convening discussions about standards to address code quality
  • initiating coding katas
  • modeling good engineering practices
  • task walls and a pull system for tasks
  • delivering working code each iteration
  • examining the teams practices and looking for ways to improve

Managers don’t need to be involved in the day-to-day  tracking of technical tasks to observe that these activities happen.

Senior people don’t have to initiate these activities.

I’ve seen many teams where junior people–both in terms of time on the job and technical skills– lead in these areas. If only senior level developers initiate good practices, I worry that they’ve created a pecking order on the team, and junior people with good ideas don’t get a chance to contribute. (Its a variation on the HiPPO problem–deferring to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

Sometimes I try thought experiments.  I might say, “Suppose we formed four teams. After the teams have some time to get their legs under them, they’re producing results. They are getting software out the door, and the customers are happy. But you don’t know exactly what each team member is contributing. Could you live with that?”  Most people say they could live without knowing. When they can’t, that’s indicative of a bigger problem.

Very often, the notion of social loafing comes up. Then we’ve reached the crux of the matter.

The original experiments on social loafing looked at uninteresting physical tasks. Some of the experiments involved people working under compulsion. But we aren’t talking about odious work done under compulsion–at least I hope we aren’t.

Remember the old saying, many hands make light work?  People talk about social loafing as if it is  morally wrong for  one person to reduce his effort because others are working at the same task.  I hear the same logic when a well-functioning team makes work look easy. Someone inevitably complains that if they aren’t struggling, they must not be working hard.

When people hold beliefs like these, the systems they build tend to be  self-reinforcing, dysfunctional–and difficult to dislodge.

When people are in small teams, and engaged in meaningful work, social loafing is rare and working hard is common. But it might not look that way to someone who hasn’t see a thriving team.

culture of entitlement, culture of blame

I received an email advertising  a workshop for managers, titled “Overcoming a Culture of Entitlement,”  last week.

Here’s the hook:

“When employees feel “entitled,” they resist change, they drag their feet, they’re not accountable, and leaders are constantly frustrated.”

Who are these leaders that are constantly frustrated?  Might they be the same ones who had a part in creating the entitlement culture they want to overcome?

To understand how people come to feel entitled, let’s look at the definition (from Merriam-Webster online):

en·ti·tle·ment Pronunciation: \-ˈtī-təl-mənt\ Function: noun

1 a : the state or condition of being entitled : right b : a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract

Employment agreements usually specify such things as vacation days, sick days, salary.  People are entitled to those by explicit contract.

I recently met a woman who was having trouble performing her job. Her desk and desktop computer were right by the window. At certain times of day, there was so much glare on her computer screen that she couldn’t do her job.  Further,  she suffered from light induced migraines.  Between the glare and a debilitating head ache, she struggling to do her job.

Under company policy, she was entitled to an ergonomic consultation to assess her office set up.  If she had a medical statement about her migraines, she would also be entitled by law to reasonable accommodation in the workplace.  That might include drawing the blinds or moving her to a different workstation.

(Her manager denied her request to close the blinds—and implied that she was selfish to want to draw the blinds when no one else was bothered by the sunlight.  The manager warned the other employees, “don’t you dare close those blinds.” Absolutely astonishing!)

But there are other types of contracts.

If company has given out a Christmas turkey for 25 years, people come to expect that this year at Christmas, they will receive a turkey.

If people observe that programmers are promoted from junior developer to senior developer on the 2nd anniversary of employment–like clockwork–they’ll come to expect it.

People come to expect certain patterns of behavior because they’ve experienced them over time.  Reliable, repeated behavior creates an implicit social contract.  When one party to the contract withdraws without notice or explanation, the other party wonders what happened, and may feel disappointed, angry, or mistreated.

2 : a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program

If an employee looses his job through no fault of his own—due to layoffs, or a position being eliminated—he is eligible for unemployment insurance. Most people who lose their jobs (even if they have been fired) believe they are not at fault, and are therefore entitled to unemployment insurance.

3 : belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

Sometimes people generalize a social contract in one context to apply in others.  This happens most often when people experience a pattern of behavior from the time they are small children.

Kids who receive every toy, candy, item of clothing, pool party, trip to the amusement park and all else they ask for tend to develop a belief that they are entitled to everything they desire. Children who are protected from the consequences of their behavior come to believe that they can do what ever they want with impunity.

Personally, I’d try to find out about this mindset in the interview process.  It come under the heading of “maturity.”

A culture of entitlement is about patterns of interaction between managers and employees over time.

Few people get to feel entitled all on their own.

I suspect that the “frustrated leaders” mentioned in the email are dealing with the first type of entitlement, the sort that comes about when there is an implicit contract.  But they are responding to the situations as if it were the 3rd type of entitlement—employees believe they deserve privileges.

When there is a “culture of entitlement” it is that way because it got that way.  And it got that way because of the interactions between employees and managers as managers carry out (stated and unstated) company policies.

These “frustrated leaders” can change the dynamic–because they are part of the pattern.

They can do that in way that ignores their contribution to the situation and blames employees—forcing, cajoling, threatening, and manipulating them—as advised in the email.

The alternative is to own up to the part manager’s actions played, treat employees like adults, talk frankly about the situation, and renegotiate the social contract.

A Defining Moment

ac-count-a-ble adj. 1. Subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable. 2. Capable of being explained; explicable.

(The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition, 1988.)

Did you know that’s what accountable means?

I never would have guessed that from listening to how people use the word. And I hear people use it a lot lately. It seems like the one of those management buzzwords that pops up from time to time, like “leadership” and “nimble” a few years back. When I ask, most people who use the word can’t give me a precise definition. They trail off saying, “Accountable means . . . well, you know . . . accountable!”

I suspect that accountable is used as a surrogate for other, less palatable, expressions. I’ve got my decoder ring right here, so let’s figure out what’s really behind this word.

False Definition 1: To be pressured

When you hear someone say, “You must hold him accountable,” pay attention to the emphasis the speaker puts on the words. When the there isn’t any particular emphasis and the statement is followed by some examples of what the staff members are expected to do, and the tools they have to do the job, the speaker is probably talking about setting achievable goals and tracking progress.

But if you hear particular stress on one or more words (“You must hold him accountable,” for example), the speaker may have a mental model of management that says, “people are basically lazy, and if you don’t push them, they will take their own sweet time getting anything done.” Listen, too, for what comes after the statement. If you hear that colorful phrase “hold his feet to the fire,” or the word “disappointed,” then accountableis a code word for pressure. And the speaker really means, “You must pressure him to perform.”

False Definition 2: To be blamed

Take for example, “The project manager is accountable for project success.” If you read this according to the dictionary definition, it might mean, “The project manager is responsible for reporting on the current state of the project, explaining the situation, and justifying the need for resources that will provide a reasonable chance of success.” It might also mean, “The project manager is responsible for explaining and justifying plans to achieve the project goals.” Or even, “If something goes wrong, the project manager must explain why.”

Unfortunately, I often hear “The project manager is accountable for project success,” (or it’s more obvious evil twin, “You are accountable for project success”) in situations where the chances for project success given the current situation are slim to none (and none just left town). Then it really means, “I will blame you if this project fails.”

False Definitions one and two are forms of pressure: a threat of unpleasant future consequences. Will that pressure really help? Or just make the blamer feel better?

False Definition 3: To be responsible for someone else’s mess

Ever heard this one? “The problem around here is that no one is accountable.” I usually hear this variant in organizations where the measurement or reward system is driving behavior that makes life “downstream” a misery. The problem isn’t really that people aren’t being held accountable; it is they are being held accountable for goals that are in conflict. For example, a certain project manager was held accountable for meeting a schedule. He’s now in the Bahamas enjoying his bonus for getting the project out on time. Meanwhile, the support manager is working overtime dealing with irate customers whose software is crashing. He is being held accountable for a goal (perhaps maintaining a certain customer satisfaction rating) that is nearly impossible to achieve, because the project manager had a goal to meet a delivery date, but did not have a goal to meet a quality standard. When someone says, “no one is accountable,” it probably means, “Because of the way someone else did his job, it is very hard to do the job I am accountable for. I feel like I’ve been left holding the bag.”

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Why am I making such a big deal about this? After all, accountable is only a word. And I do believe that people should be accountable for their actions. But when there’s a coded meaning involved through context or emphasis, then no one is well served. I believe that the vast majority of people want to do a good job. They may not always know how or have what they need to get the job done, but their intention is to do good work.

We will all be more accountable if we remember the true definition: The first part “subject to the obligation to report,” reminds us to report on our understanding of the task and our ability to get it done with the current resources. The second part, “capable of being explained; explicable,” reminds us to check that the task can be credibly described. When we remember the real meaning of accountable, we can stop talking in code words and get on with building solid software.

(c) 2002-2012 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, July/August 2002

Unskilled and Unaware of It

Stephen Norrie (an avid and well-organized collector of articles related to software development, technology, business and humans) pointed me to this study:

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

Justin Kruger and David Dunning

Department of Psychology

Cornell University


People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Thanks, Stephen.

More to come.