Let me start by saying this isn’t a political treatise. This is a blog about, so I want to use recent events to help us see some truths about leadership, not take a political side or further an agenda. If that disappoints you, I’m sorry — but if you want to think about the lessons we can all take from this very public situation, read on …
I see three specific and immediate things for us to learn as leaders from the launch and failures of the healthcare.gov website, and the first is hinted at in my opening paragraph.
Judgment vs. Observation
Most of the media commentary about the problems with the launch of the site have been judgments. There is a big difference between observation and judgment. (I’ve written about it before, including here), and that difference matters. Here is a snippet of that article:
When giving feedback, are your statements largely observational or judgmental? If you try to pass judgment off as fact, you risk being wrong and setting a stage for defensiveness, resistance or worse.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with making judgments. Decisions are judgments. But even then, it is important to separate observation from assumption and judgment. Doing so will help you make better decisions.
While the people in Congress make judgments, they aren’t necessarily creating an environment that will allow for understanding and improvement in the situation. (Want some examples? Here are clips from Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ testimony on Oct. 30.)
As a leader, be clear about the differences between observation and judgment, and use each when appropriate.
Accountability is a powerful concept and one that we as leaders need to promote and encourage. Yet the recent events remind us why many people might shy away from being accountable. Why do I say that? Because all of the language in recent events about accountability is about “holding someone accountable,” and is closely and obviously tied to blame.
Who is accountable? Sounds like who is going to pay for the mistakes, doesn’t it?
When we start with the idea that accountability is about taking ownership and not about taking (or assigning) blame, we will help people be open to and accept ownership for their work, decisions and more; but if we only use that word in relationship to blame, doesn’t that change how we feel about it?
Look at it this way. If the website had been flawless with no issues since it was launched, would we be hearing and using the word accountability in relation to it?
The best leaders know that accountability is about more than placing blame — it’s about giving people a chance to have more meaning and growth in their work by providing them the resources and reins to take ownership.
In her testimony yesterday, Secretary Sebelius said: “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”
These are the right words, and they might be completely heartfelt, but at some level that won’t matter. The fact is that people will only trust and believe her if they see her actions matching those words. Perhaps people will feel she was forced to say them (to keep her job?), perhaps people will wonder why she didn’t say it sooner (maybe she was told not to?), or perhaps people have other thoughts in their mind relating to her statement.
Leader must know that trust is earned through the filter of the other people. They choose whether to trust what we say or do, and they make those decisions based on a variety of factors and experiences, not just the face value of the words we say at any given moment.
Hopefully using this example allows us to take lessons for ourselves as leaders from the recent events — finding things we want to do and perhaps things we want to avoid. The good news is that we can do this exercise with any news story about leadership — because there are always lessons for us, if we look for them.