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Mastering Discomfort Is the Key to Workplace Accountability

When I saw the grimace on my client’s face, I knew we were about to discuss something genuinely difficult. And I was right: workplace accountability was a significant problem in her organization. Their managers, she explained, avoided taking on these kinds of conversations - especially those meant to correct the smaller performance failings and less egregious transgressions - and because of their avoidance, the problems always got bigger, more complicated, and much harder to solve. In the end, these accountability conversations were often extremely painful for both the managers and their employees.

If something, or someone, is causing you discomfort, the instinctive response is avoidance. Yet, in this case, avoidance provides only temporary relief. The root of the difficulty can be traced back to a core principle: work is a complex web of dependencies. Put another way, we, all of us, depend on other people to get our work done… and they depend on us. This mutual dependence is called reliability: the capacity to fulfill our responsibilities and commitments to one another. Accountability is one aspect of reliability: holding each other responsible for our actions (or lack thereof).

Accountability is, in many ways, the opposite of avoidance. Accountability goes toward when avoidance moves away. Accountability says "show up" when avoidance whispers “disappear.” At first glance, accountability itself appears uncomfortable but, in fact, it’s a powerful pain reliever. When used consistently, it prevents problems from proliferating, reduces their reach, and decreases their severity. In the case of the accountability conversation - a powerful tool when used skillfully - my client’s managers failed to reliably deliver necessary correction and feedback in a timely way. In my experience, this lapse is due to a) the manager’s discomfort, or b) the manager’s difficulty in coping with the other person’s discomfort, or c) both.

Learning to cope with discomfort, yours or someone else’s, is a work productivity skill that is rarely discussed. Yet, it is a key ability that improves accountability - and, by extension, reliability - dramatically. Being able to tolerate your own discomfort in telling someone they’ve fallen short (or outright violated expectations) is a matter of practice. Likewise, being able to cope with another person’s discomfort while they’re being corrected, is simply a skill. Both are a matter of staying calm under fire, staying present to the situation at hand, and not letting your emotional reactions get the best of you.

As your confidence grows (and it will, with practice), you can put yourself in charge of your discomfort. Then, when you notice discomfort, it’s just a sensation - one that you recognize and know you can survive feeling. It is a natural human response to attempt to escape discomfort. We want to run away, or alternatively, pick a fight to make whomever is causing our discomfort to bug off. But with courage and confidence, you will be able to choose a third alternative: remaining calm and in control, staying with your discomfort for as long as it takes to resolve the situation.

Tags: Productivity

Tara Rodden Robinson

Tara Rodden Robinson

Tara Rodden Robinson earned her Ph.D. in Biology from the Unversity of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. She is credentialed as an Associate Certified Coach by the International Coach Federation. She founded her coaching…
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