A mindset that affects communication, processes, and work ethics, ‘Covering your back’ (or CYA in popular usage) is all about safeguarding oneself from the possibility of future criticisms or negative consequences.

While some may term it a ‘necessary evil’, CYA is counterproductive to employee morale and business growth. Think of the time and effort spent drafting needless emails or attending meetings that you don’t need to be at – all of which leads to inefficiencies. More significantly, CYA breeds mistrust, suspicion, and disengagement amongst employees, who ideally should be working together for professional fulfillment and organizational value.

What do CYA and accountability look like?

David, a sales rep, feels that one of his leads may not convert. So, he focuses on a more lucrative prospect. Later, his first lead places a sizeable purchase order for a similar product from a competitor. 

Scenario A – CYA: Despite knowing that his product does not meet the first client’s criteria, David sends out several half-hearted follow up emails in case his boss questions him about the lost order. In the process, he loses time that could have been spent either negotiating a better deal with the first client or productively pursuing his second lead. 

Scenario B – Accountability: In a meeting with his manager, David is open and takes responsibility for the lost order by validating his decisions. The manager reinforces the concept of shared decision-making, reviews performance, and discusses strengths and weaknesses. Together, they manage expectations and implement positive action points for ensuring no future misses – whether this requires creating a new process, undergoing training, or seeking help for difficult customers.

The difference between these scenarios is the fear of punishment versus empowerment and alignment. Leaders looking to transition from CYA to accountability can try out the following methods:

a) Move from process dependency to decentralized decision making

Elon Musk once said, “There’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.” Resistance to new ideas is a by-product of a CYA culture. In many cases, leaders want to take risks if these can drive business value, but blame the individual manager if the idea fails. Hence, a classic CYA move takes effect – hiding behind processes because no one wants to make a risky decision. The result is low innovation.

A workaround to this is promoting decentralized decision making, which eliminates the need for hierarchical approvals. Members take active responsibility for their roles, collaborate to actualize innovation, and use feedback as a constructive way to maintain accountability amongst themselves – all of which improve productivity.   

b) Emphasize employee engagement rather than performance improvement

Often, employees try to demonstrate superior performance by exaggerating non-productive tasks. The underlying reason for this is mistrust and job insecurity – think convoluted CYA communication to one’s boss or HR departments, due to fear of being downsized.

To overcome this, measure employee turnover to understand what contributes to attrition and then, engage employees right from the recruitment stage by promoting avenues for growth like training and re-skilling programs. Employees who are empowered through effective HR processes are more committed and aligned with organizational goals, and hence accountable.

c) Replace ineffective communication with self-direction

While attending back-to-back meetings might make for a colourful calendar, this is not always a constructive use of time. In fact, you may unknowingly be part of someone else’s CYA practice. As an employee, evaluate whether your presence is needed. If not, voice your concerns with your team member. This links back to the earlier point about employees being afraid to take risks or voice new ideas. As a leader, take on the role of a facilitator to maximize meeting effectiveness. Techniques like breaking up the meeting into smaller groups and having structured discussions to voice disagreements or concerns promote openness and honesty – remedies to the mistrust and suspicion of CYA.

For more ideas on creating an accountable workplace, check out our blogs for employees as well as leaders.

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