If you find problems everywhere you go, you may be the problem, leadership coach John Engels told a gathering of accountants.

In a keynote address at CPA.com’s Digital CPA Conference and the Information Technology Alliance’s Fall Collaborative, “Owning Your Leadership: Taming Discomfort, Summoning Courage,” Engels warned attendees that they – like most people – need to start being “emotionally responsible” if they hope to succeed in the firms and their lives.

He described the natural human tendency to avoid conflict and discomfort, and how it plays out in accounting firms, with leadership ignoring interpersonal issues or difficult partners, failing to call for accountability, and neglecting the training and coaching of young leaders.

“What discussions on the home front are being avoided due to discomfort?” he asked. “We’re ‘dancing to the beat of discomfort’ – when we know others are unhappy, so we dance around their unhappiness,” rather than addressing it.

Interestingly, the right approach to these issues often isn’t to focus on the problems themselves, Engels suggested, but rather to focus on the response to the problem.

Generally, it’s not the problem that determines the outcome,” he said. “It’s the leader’s response to the problem.”

That’s where emotional responsibility comes into play. As Engels describes it, emotional responsibility is taking responsibility for your own wants, needs, actions, reactions, responses and so on, without blaming other people, the situation, or the circumstances.

Among other things, it means facing up to uncomfortable situations, rather than retreating into busy work that we’re comfortable with. “We often get busy with what we know because it’s more comfortable than dealing,” he explained. “We choose comfort over progress.”

Rather than coach or teaching young staff, for instance, people often simply solve their problems or provide answers for them. And firm leaders often put off dealing with troublesome partners or major governance issues, citing the pressure of day-to-day client work.

The emotionally responsible, however, move beyond discomfort. “Comfort and discomfort are poor barometers for decisions, Engels said. “The road to progress often passes through discomfort.”

One of the critical elements of how responsibly addressing uncomfortable situations is to be willing to address the role of their own response. If they’re dealing with an unproductive partner, for instance, have they enabled the partner by being unwilling to address his lack of performance? Or have they given the partner counterproductive incentives through a compensation system that rewards the minimum effort? Worse yet, have they encouraged dissension among the partner group by complaining about the unproductive partner, without actually addressing his lack of productivity?

Responsible leaders will start by modifying their own part in an emotional or uncomfortable situation, so that they don’t create more of a problem than there already is. Once they modify their behavior, Engels suggested, other people within the organization will often modify their behavior to suit.


Profiles in courage

All of this, Engels acknowledged, requires courage – specifically, what he called “the Four Faces of Courage:”

  • Face 1: Wise helpfulness. “Not all helpfulness is wise,” Engels pointed out – much of what passes for help is actually micro-management, or providing answers instead of direction, which cuts other off from opportunities to grow and learn.
  • Face 2: Strategic connecting. Quality one-on-one time is different from mere regular meetings, he said – it involves self-disclosure, and sharing your story so that employee can understand you more fully and feel comfortable trusting you. “Don’t make the other person do all the sharing, all the work, all the risking,” Engels said.
  • Face 3: Asking versus telling. It’s natural to want to provide answers to questions, but Engels suggested asking your staff challenging questions instead, to get them to think independently.
  • Face 4: Managing relationship triangles. Leaders often find themselves in these kinds of three-sided situations – where, say, Employee B comes to you to complain about Employee C. It’s easy to commiserate with B, but more responsible to focus on getting B out of the victim position and into a more active role where they can work with C to fix the problem, or change their own behavior to mitigate it. “In these triangles, 100 percent of the time, B is part of the problem,” Engels said.

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