By Rick Lepsinger
Although it is usually difficult to predict what people will do or say, there is at least one principle of human behavior that appears to be predictable and consistent. On employee surveys, when we ask people if they and others in their department are held accountable for results, we get a very high percentage of favorable responses. However, ask them if people in other departments are being held accountable and the percentage of favorable responses is typically very low. In other words, while we believe we take accountability for our actions we are just as certain that others do not. This is one aspect of human behavior that you can take to the bank.
How big a problem is the lack of accountability in today’s organizations, anyway? Our research suggests it’s a fairly substantial one. In our survey of over 400 senior and mid-level leaders, 40% report that employees in their organizations are not being held accountable for results and 20% report that managers in their organizations do not deal with poor performers. It also appears that the presence or absence of accountability in an organization makes a difference—77% of leaders in top-performing organizations report that “employees at all levels are held accountable for results” compared to only 44% in less successful organizations.
Before-the-Fact Accountability Booster: Set People Up For Success
The best way to manage accountability is to ensure that people follow through in the first place, versus trying to hold them accountable after they’ve dropped the ball. Three techniques can help you dramatically increase the chances that people will follow through and keep their commitments: clarifying actions and expectations, agreeing on due dates for deliverables, and establishing check points. The acronym ATC can help you remember the technique.
Action. This is the starting point for both setting people up for success and being able to hold them accountable after the fact, so it is critical to get it right. This is where you clarify expectations (what “good looks like”) and identify who is accountable for which parts of the work. Regardless of how good an idea someone has or how sincere their intention, nothing happens until someone commits to taking some action to produce a specific deliverable.
It is unfair to expect someone to deliver the results you expect if those results are not outlined clearly and unambiguously. In fact, if expectations and responsibility for specific aspects of the work are up for interpretation, it’s impossible to hold someone accountable for results. Missing this first step often explains why many managers are hesitant to discuss accountability when people do not follow through or, when they do, why the conversation can deteriorate into “he said she said” arguments.
Timetable. Just as important as clarifying actions and expectations, establishing an agreed upon due date is critical to ensuring everyone is on the same page. Due dates like “as soon as possible” and “by next week” lay the foundation for misunderstandings because your “as soon as possible” may not be anywhere near theirs. (Does “by next week” mean before next week? Does it mean Monday of next week or Friday of next week?) In addition, commitments that don’t have a time frame frequently do not get attention and usually fall by the wayside.
Checkpoints. One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting to check in until the action or deliverable is due. Although the pitfall seems obvious—waiting until the due date to check in does not leave time for problem solving—it is surprising how many people stumble into it. One explanation leaders offer for this self-defeating behavior is that they’re afraid of communicating a lack of trust in the other person’s ability—or of being labeled a micro-manager.
The simple, yet powerful, solution is to establish periodic progress check points before the due date. The frequency of the checkpoints will depend on the difficulty of the task and the experience of the person. This technique simultaneously solves both problems: the implied lack of trust and the micro-managing. Agreeing on checkpoints with the other person makes follow up and progress checks a shared and mutually endorsed activity. The check-ins are now part of project management and they also provide opportunities for you to coach if there is a problem and recognize and reinforce behavior when things are going well.
In addition, because you’ve outlined the milestones you are comfortable with and built in time to get things back on track if you discover there is a problem, you don’t have to give in to the temptation to make spontaneous or surprise visits or to call when you get nervous about whether the project is on track.
After-The-Fact Accountability Booster: Three Accountability Questions
Sure, prevention is better than an after-the-fact remedy. But in the real world, people will drop the ball from time to time. Rather than berating a person for her failure to deliver results, reinforce her accountability and focus on problem solving. Three questions will encourage the person to think about how she contributed to the current situation, what she can do to get things back on track, and what she can do to prevent it from happening again.
In addition to asking these questions directly yourself (which might come across as accusatory), you should coach the person to pose them to herself as a way to manage her own accountability. The three questions are:
- Present: “What can I do now to get on track?”
- Future: “What can I do to prevent this problem from happening again in the future?”
- Past: “What could I have done to prevent the problem? What, if anything, did I do that might have possibly contributed to the problem”?
Although we are aware that it’s important, many of us still hesitate to hold others accountable for their actions. In the heat of the moment it may seem faster and less of a hassle to let something go or to wait and see what happens. Discussions about accountability can be straightforward and potential conflicts less intense when everyone knows ahead of time what is expected and how success will be measured. Plus, of course, establishing this clarity reduces the likelihood of having to have the discussions in the first place.
This article was reprinted with permission from the author.
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A virtual team expert with more than 30 years experience and a proven track record as a human resource consultant and executive, Rick Lepsinger is the president of OnPoint Consulting. He is the co-author of several books on leadership and organizational effectiveness, including Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results and Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance. Rick was on the faculty of GE’s Management Development Course (MDC) for four years and led the program, Making GE’s Global Matrix Work.