Why is Accountability So Hard?

What is the number one frustration for people managers?  In my coaching work, I hear repeatedly that it is getting people to do what we expect them to do.  Whether it is how they prioritize, the process they use to get results or the actual tasks they do, I repeatedly hear folks sigh, “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself!”
So why can’t we get people to do what we want, when we want it, how we want it?  Here are a few observations:
1) The most important thing we can do is be clear about our expectations. Whether we are working with a brand-new employee or a long term established employee, we need to take time to be sure we are clear on priorities, goals and processes and how the employee’s work links to the organizational mission.
I remember speaking with an executive who prided himself on never providing feedback or assessments to his “good” employees. “I only do evaluations when people are not performing well,” he said.  He went on to explain that they received their job description when they came in and they should know what to do.
Can we really expect a job description to cover all our expectations?  Don’t things change over time?  Even with high level employees, is it possible that what they think is important is not what we think is important?
While there is a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of annual reviews, there is no doubt that setting expectations, updating them and providing feedback regularly is critical to performance success.
2) And then, whether we set expectations or not, our next challenge is how we communicate what we want. We are totally clear in our own heads – I know I make sense to myself. However, I have discovered that what I think I thought I said is not what other people hear.  If you want to be sure you are on the same page, you need to summarize what you’ve discussed and agreed to…preferably in writing.  How does this play out?

  • On the fly comments are not captured.
    For example, I am walking with someone to a meeting and say something like, “and I’d like it if you did x, y or z…”  I remember I said it. I see it as a directive.  Did the person I related it to write it down? Did we discuss a due date? Did we prioritize? What are the chances this will be retained after the meeting?  Would I remember it if the tables were turned? Be careful that we don’t think we are so important that our “in passing thought” will be retained.
  • Weekly meetings end in confusion.
    You have a typical one-hour meeting with your direct report or your team and discuss a dozen different items. Time is up and off you go, each of you totally clear in your own minds about what was important, the priorities, strategies and time lines.

Stop the meeting with ten minutes to go and review what you have discussed. Ask your direct report(s) to summarize…that way you will know what they heard and plan to do.  This is a great way to identify misunderstandings, ideas that were dropped and disagreements with the plan of action. You may discover that you need more than ten minutes for the summary.
Often, it is not until the review that you discover that someone is not buying in to an action item.  They were silent during the meeting because they were still thinking about it and/or disagreed but didn’t want to bring it up, but now that you mention it again and are defining it as a priority…well it is time to speak up because it isn’t going to disappear.
How often have you raised an item at a meeting and there is no response? We usually assume that everyone is on board, but the truth is, silence is sometimes cloaking discomfort, dissatisfaction or confusion. One of my favorite concepts from Patrick Lencioni is to assume silence is disagreement. Invite affirmative commitment to a plan before you think you are ready to go forward.
Ultimately, summary reviews should include priorities, responsibilities, timelines and check-in dates.  And, how will you document these? Format can range from a white board, easel page, spreadsheet or project management program depending on your team, the complexity of the projects and preferred workstyles.  If it is not documented, it isn’t going to happen!

  • Direct requests are not followed up on.
    This is an interesting item.  I am amazed at how clearly we think we are saying things (remember how clear we are in our own heads?) and yet we are often vague, noncommittal and ultimately unclear in what we want.  I’ve invited myself into meetings with directors and managers who are beside themselves with frustration because they do not get the results they want from their direct requests.  I’ve heard some of the following:
  1. Would you be willing to do x? (and then they are surprised when the employee declines to do x.)
  2. It would be helpful if you could do x. (Employee hears, a “nice to do” not a “have to do.”)
  3. I’d like you do x when you have the time. (no time line, no importance, no priority…are you surprised it isn’t done?)
  4. What do you think about doing x? (interesting idea…oh, do you mean me?)

And in all of these cases, the leader/manager/supervisor thinks they have made a direct request. I’ve come up with two possible reasons why requests are framed this way…and would like to hear your thoughts.

  • The leader/manager/supervisor does not want to come across as too bossy or demanding. This can often be the case when someone was promoted from within the ranks.  It is also possible when there are differences in social identity where there is a hierarchical imbalance.  (E.g. age – younger boss to older employee; gender – female boss to male employee; race/ethnicity – person of color boss to white employee.)  A lot of times these changes in how requests are made are not even conscious.
  • The leader/manager/supervisor thinks they are so important that they expect their employees to jump at their every wish. We shouldn’t have to write it down or review it, they should just do it.  I am too busy to take the time.
  • Why else? Cultural differences? Personality differences?

3) And finally, the biggest challenge of all is follow-up. I’ve heard over and over again, “who is going to hold people accountable?” The answer is…you…by setting deadlines, requiring updates, expecting people to inform you ahead of time if they are facing a problem and/or are not going to be able to deliver on-time.
I spoke to an employee recently who was given an assignment a year ago. He’s been asked several times how he’s doing on completing it.  He says, he’s working on it.  His manager knows he should have it done by now but hasn’t said much more about it. The truth is, the employee has been overwhelmed by the task and has avoided it by keeping busy with other projects. How important is the project if it has been drifting along for a year?
We don’t have to be mean and nasty to get results. In a nutshell, we need to:

  • Set clear expectations that include priorities and expected outcomes.
  • Be mindful of when and how we frame requests.
    • “On the fly” requests get lost.
    • Casual requests may sound like suggestions or low priority.
  • Summarize action items from meetings to ensure timelines, responsibilities and priorities.
  • Link requests to the goals and purpose of the organization. We know that people are able to embrace their work more effective when they can connect the dots to purpose and meaning.
  • Follow-up in a timely manner. If it isn’t important to you, why will it be important to anyone else?