A CTA Bus Driver Provides a Lesson in Accountability

I enjoy staying alert and observing my regular surroundings because I just never know when and where an important business lesson may reveal itself in “everyday life”—and last week was no exception! This weeks’ unlikely inspiration came from a CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) bus driver as I was returning from an appointment.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of public transportation and have used it to different degrees since I was a kid growing up in Evanston just north of Chicago. My grandmother and great aunt used the CTA busses and El (Chicago’s version of the subway—much of it elevated above street level—hence the name) all the time to run errands, go grocery shopping, etc., and I would often use that system to go visit them and cruise around the city with them as I was growing up. It just seemed so “normal” to me. I’ve used public busses, trains, and subways all over the world, and as people who know me well have heard me say before, I think of public transport as “adult amusement rides” and something interesting and unusual almost always happens.

This was the case last week as I boarded a mid-day bus from the Loop back to my home office. It wasn’t crowded so I easily found a seat. A few rows in front of me a young man was playing what looked to be some sort of game on his phone, and he also started playing some music over his phone’s speakers. The music wasn’t offensive, but it was pretty loud, and he didn’t have earphones so we all got to “enjoy” his tunes. As the bus started filling up after a few stops he must have turned the volume up a notch or two when suddenly the young lady driving the bus made a pretty loud announcement that whoever was playing the music needed to turn it off. I don’t think at that point she knew who was responsible, and the young man either ignored her or didn’t hear her request—so the music played on. Just as we were pulling away after the next stop, she repeated her request and added “or else I will stop the bus” for good measure.

We’ve all heard statements like this before from parents, coaches, bosses, teachers, etc., but I will say this was a first for me at least. I never expected to hear this kind of statement from a bus driver! I think the young man must have figured it was an empty threat, so he kept the music blaring from his phone. Then suddenly the driver pulled the bus over to the curb (not at a bus stop) coming to a complete stop and looked right at the culprit in her rear-view mirror and told him he had 3 choices: turn off the music, get off the bus, or sit tight while she made a call to the CTA cops to have him removed. I think we were all startled–the young man probably more than the rest of us –but he immediately turned off his music and the bus driver pulled back out into traffic to resume her route.

This interaction could have gone a number of different ways. Being a Chicago city bus driver is a thankless and often dangerous job so thank goodness it ended well. But she was clear in her directions, was certain of her objective, gave the young man two chances to comply before ramping up the pressure, and let him make the choice of how to proceed. It was a classic leadership and accountability lesson with great takeaways for any business or organizational leader.

One takeaway that really hit home for me was how the bus driver took the pressure off the rest of the passengers and got the focus directly on the interaction between her and the young man. Many drivers (read supervisors, leaders, managers) would have simply ignored the situation—not wanting to get involved or hoping it would simply solve itself or “go away” on its own. This leaves the problem to fester with the rest of the passengers or employees or team members and makes it their problem. Does somebody say something? If so, then what? Do you threaten or try to reason with the person? What happens then if they don’t comply? Does anyone else have any authority at that point to enforce any actions? This was a leaders’ time to get involved and act—and in this case that’s exactly what the bus driver did.

The second takeaway was the clarity of the bus drivers’ communication. In all situations, but especially when you are attempting to alter someone’s behavior, clear communication of the expectation is critical. In this case the driver did a great job. In all three interactions she didn’t mix in any opinions, passive/aggressive requests, or disrespectful language. And she also never sugar coated the message or tried to “guilt” the young man into action—it was crystal clear to all of us exactly what she was expecting.

And thirdly, she laid out the expectations and the consequences for our “music man” and then put the decision squarely in his hands on how he wanted to proceed. This is an absolutely classic accountability technique performed to perfection by our CTA driver. She didn’t make it about her or the other passengers—it was all about him at that point. He would be allowed to make this decision, and he was being held 100% accountable for the result.

Accountability is often referenced by people in leadership positions, and many times the word is written into corporate mission statements and employee handbooks. People know (or say they know) how important accountability is for delivering exceptional results. But more often than not accountability isn’t really part of our training and development program, and it also isn’t really woven into the daily fabric of our businesses.

Invest in your people and invest in making accountability an integral part of their training and development. When you reward and celebrate model accountability behaviors, while communicating them throughout the entire organization, you get happier, more relaxed and engaged employees. They’ll have more skills and resources to perform the tasks that drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

  • JC

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