I recently joined a company where the term ‘CYA’ is thrown around quite a bit. I am used to the small company environment where using this term was career-limiting. What are your thoughts on the matter and what should I do?
The MBA Responds…
Thanks for the great question!
To those readers who are not familiar with the acronym, CYA stands for “Cover Your Assets” (there are variations to the term, but we’ll stick to this one). It basically means to demonstrate workplace behavior that aligns with doing things to protect yourself when the blame game starts.
I recently conducted a small poll where I asked the question, “Is ‘CYA’ an appropriate term for the workplace?”. The answers were as expected – “It depends.” or “You betcha.” or “I live and die by it.” I appreciate these responses and respect the opinions, however, I have to respectfully disagree and make the argument for why CYA is dangerous in the workplace – whether it’d be in practice or stated.
In my humble opinion, CYA, by it’s fundamental nature, impacts two very important factors that have a strong correlation with creating shareholder value and building sustainable organizations: accountability and productivity.
In a lot of organizations, you’ll find accountability as a core value or core principle cast in stone or framed in gold-bordered frames in the lobbies. However, it is these same organizations that gave birth and continue to nurture the concept of CYA. Not by choice, but by the implicit culture that has developed. Let’s first establish a definition of accountability. I view accountability as the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility for one’s actions/decisions and the resulting outcomes – be it positive or negative. As agents for the shareholders or stakeholders of organizations, we all (from CEO to Analyst) have been provided the privilege and endowed with trust to run or participate in these organizations and create value (however that is defined). In order to honor and preserve that privilege and trust, accountability (as defined above) is a must – not only for the sake of the organizations but also for the sake of your personal reputation. Considering this, if you are a CYA organization or engage in CYA as an individual, then you are constantly faced with the fundamental conflict of being accountable or protecting yourself in the blame game. And you’ll find that CYA usually prevails because everyone surrounding you in doing it! Michael Hyatt has a great post on Leadership Accountability – see here.
Michael Krigsman, of ZDNet, sums it up best about IT project failures (our proxy to discuss productivity), “Most IT [project] failures are driven by hidden dynamics related to political, organizational, and cultural issues, but Machiavelli isn’t the answer.” Raise your hand, if you agree with this statement? (I anticipate all hands to go up now!). In my humble opinion, one of the key factors or hidden dynamics contributing to project failures is CYA behavior and it manifests itself in the form of emails, public displays, meetings, etc. All of this activity takes a lot of time and effort – valuable and high-demand resources that can be dedicated to doing more productive things. Companies like Apple and Google that focus on innovation and growth are able to do so because of a keen focus and practice on these objectives as opposed to a focus and practice on office politics and/or counter-productive behavior. Imagine Scenario A, ending a 60 minute meeting with nothing resolved where 50 minutes was dedicated to the blame game and now imagine, Scenario B ending a 30 minute meeting with an action plan/resolutions where the 30 minutes were dedicated to identifying the challenge/issue, accepting the root cause of the issue, working together to devise a solution, and walking away with an action plan. Such work environments do exist – it takes one analyst or one team to be the example.
How do you transform your organization from a CYA culture to a Zero-CYA Tolerance culture?
The following bulleted list provides some initial thoughts on how to transform your organization from spreading CYA to instill Zero-CYA Tolerance culture:
- Gain Leadership & Management Support. Use the organization’s Executive Leadership and Sr. Managers to build a culture that focuses on accepting and learning from mistakes, moving forward and devising solutions, and promoting zero-tolerance for the blame game.
- Reward exceptional behavior. As humans, we tend to respond best to rewards/incentives. Accordingly, if you want to promote positive behavior, then provide extrinsic rewards (bonuses, days off, praise/recognition, etc.) and encourage the individuals intrinsic rewards (self-motivation drivers that come from inside the person).
- Lead by example. A common solution to everything because it works! As humans, we are all wired to be tribal; i.e., we all want to be part of and belong to a group. Accordingly, the CYA nature may be spreading in your organization because the CYA tribe is the only option. So, why not lead by example and create a new? If you find CYA behavior frustrating, don’t become a part of the problem, lead by example and create the solution.
- Make coaching & mentoring a priority. Create an internal platform for coaching and mentoring. Lots of companies promote their mentor ship models, but rarely does the marketing align with reality. Be different and make coaching & mentoring a priority. Do this by making it a part of performance reviews/evaluations, allocate time (for leaders/managers) for coaching/mentoring in the HR policy, and finally provide the right coaching/mentoring by first, assessing the individual needs and then, delivering a customized configuration.
- Document, improve & standardize your processes. You can extract and limit the subjectivity, emotions, and interpretation factors in your organization by documenting, improving and standardizing your processes. By doing this, you provide your organization not only a prescriptive approach or way of doing things and but also a platform and focus for continuous improvement.
Hope this helps! Say No to CYA! As always, please leave your feedback/comments – would love to hear your thoughts!