When you struggle with accountability in your organization, most likely it is because you haven’t set the conditions for people to be accountable.
For someone (group, team, unit, vendor) to be ‘accountable,’ four specific conditions need to have been present long in advance. Working backwards from the end product to the beginning of the process:
- A clear expectation for performance: A specific result achieved at or by a given time. (For example: A written report delivered by Friday morning at 11. Clear; specific; unambiguous. You should be surprised if you don’t receive a report on Friday morning.)
- An agreement and a commitment by the person or party expected to do the actual work. An agreement indicates a willingness to do the work (“Sure thing, boss!”) while a commitment constitutes a promise to do it (“Count on me; you’ll have it first thing Friday morning!”)
- A request from someone (you) for the work to be done provided to someone (a specific staffer, vendor, contractor…). Here’s what is not a request: “You know what would be great, if you…” Many things would be great. Keep lobbing those ideas out there. They aren’t directives. They’re musings. Likewise: “I need you to do this.” You may need it. That doesn’t constitute acceptance of an obligation. It just means you said something, basically to yourself, until you have the agreement and commitment from the other party.
- A clear declaration of the work you want. The report you want on Friday, it’s: to assess the market prospects over the next three years for proposed product X, with a competitive analysis.
The graphic below lays out The Accountability Chain (see it at the bottom of the chart which describes the larger role of language in the leader’s toolbox).
Wiggles & Hedges
Your staff may lack the confidence or courage to refuse to commit to something that they know they reasonably cannot promise. Or they may be more interested in pleasing you in the moment of the request than at the time of expected delivery. So you’ll hear agreement, but fail to get a commitment.
So to your request (or demand) for a commitment, your clever colleagues will say something that gets them off the hook for the moment, and gives them an out down the road. These hedges sound something like:
- I will do it if I can…
- That might / should be doable…
- If everything goes all right…
- It’ll be tough but I’ll do all I can…
- I intend to get going on that just as soon as I’m able…
- Chances are that I’ll get to it. (Are you taking bets?)
Every one of these responses sounds like someone affirming allegiance to the cause. But each soft statement is missing just enough conviction to assure that the person cannot be held accountable for actually accomplishing little or nothing.
The post-disappointment justifications sound like this, “I told you I would try and I did!” “I said that it might be doable.”
Listen for such non-commital language masquerading as the commitment you want to hear. The person making such a tepid promise is both well-intending, and knows at some level that if he fails to deliver, he can always retreat to the defense that says: “I didn’t promise. I said I would use my best efforts—and I guess they just weren’t good enough. Sorry.”
Recognize that when your colleague uses such vague wording in making a commitment that he or she is not necessarily trying to shirk responsibility. It is just prudent to stop short of fully promising something that may not be delivered.
Actions to Assure Commitment
When asking others to commit to a deliverable or course of action, pin down the commitment. Be clear about the outcomes you expect, and make sure the other person shares those expectations.
Secure a definite promise to a specific outcome within a particular time frame. “Will you have that report to me no later than Friday at noon?”
Confirm the voluntary nature of the other person’s commitment. Ask questions that give the person options and even potentially provide an out. “How doable is having the report to me by Friday?”
If you sense reservation, hear wiggle words, or detect a commitment born of martyrdom, take the initiative to probe for conflicts or difficulties. “I appreciate your making the promise but I believe that I sense some reluctance. Is making good on this commitment exacting a heavy cost to you? Does it cause you hardship?”
By offering an “escape hatch” you give your associate an opportunity to share some difficulty that might be invisible to you, such as other pressing competing priorities and simultaneous deadlines that you might have forgotten about or of which you were never aware.
Such issues will be causing your co-worker stress as they wrestle with them whether you know about them or not. By inviting full disclosure, you can help mediate the conflicts that might get in the way of your associate giving your current urgent project the attention it is due.
Underscore the import of a pressing commitment by overtly identifying internal conflicts with it. Ask questions such as:
- Are there any internal obstacles that stand in the way of your fulfilling this commitment?
- Do you need something you don’t have in order to fulfill this commitment?
- Do you need anything from me to make good on your commitment to doing this?
Notice how each of those questions above contain two important elements. 1) You offered to be of service, and 2) you directly reinforced the idea that the other person was making a direct commitment to a specific course of action.
As a leader, your credibility rests not only on fulfilling your own personal commitments, but those of your associates. The only way you can be really sure of another’s commitment to fulfilling your commitments is to be committed to testing for the extent of commitment, overtly and directly.
Will you commit to doing that?