“Healthy Organization” Foundation #4: Culture.
We just concluded our 4th ADVANCE management and leadership workshop of the year and, as always, a major topic of interest and conversation was “accountability”. It seems all managers, leaders and directors, from top to bottom in the organization, struggle with this fundamental component of being a “healthy leader”. Why is that? The typical answer we get at Comer & Associates is, “It’s hard to hold people accountable because it demands confrontation and that’s uncomfortable.”
While it is certainly true that the human interaction involving difficult conversations is challenging, it is more often the case that you simply may not have the right processes or tools in place to effectively hold people accountable. The basic formula is simple:
- Set crystal clear expectations.
- Have an effective follow-up process.
- Apply consequences, as needed, to ensure you’re getting the performance and results you need.
After a conversation with your boss, your subordinate, a peer or any team member critical to your performance, you can always be certain that what is in your mind is NOT what is in their mind. We enter every conversation with our own unique framework of assumptions. Our dialogue partner has a different framework and we rarely spend the time necessary to get to maximum clarity with one another. Communication is imperfect. You must spend the time to be absolutely sure your expectations are understood and that you both leave the conversation with the same understanding.
If I hear from one of my team members, “I’ll get that report done by Friday.” I’m thinking as the leader, “Great! I’ll have the finished, polished product ready to share with the management team by Friday.” The employee walks away thinking, “I’ll have a first draft ready by Friday for the boss to review.” The result is a lack of clarity and mismatched expectations. It’s very difficult to hold the team member accountable to a standard of performance you didn’t work hard enough to clarify up front. We assume people should know what they’re “supposed to be doing”. They rarely do.
Another important factor is that expectations can change in a complex and dynamic work environment where new customer demands or shifting operational realities are commonplace. The rule in this case is to renegotiate and reprioritize expectations as needed. Circumstances often change. Expectations should follow suit and be modified as priorities change. Make sure you are focused on the “vital few” items important to goal achievement and that everyone involved knows exactly which items to prioritize. You cannot hold someone accountable for performance on one project/task if several others have entered the picture since the original performance expectation was set. Always reset expectations and priorities with both the original team member and their team mates.
Effective Follow-up Process
If you do all the hard work to discuss, define, negotiate and set crystal clear expectations but have no system for following up on progress (and ultimately project/task completion), you might as well have not bothered to set the expectation in the first place. Why does this happen? The most common reason the follow-up process breaks down is that people get overly busy and we as managers “assume” (that word again!) that things are on track.
A key component of an effective follow-up process is a valid metric of performance. Some elements in business are both easier to measure and more likely to have a highly structured follow-up process in place i.e. the monthly sales or product/service quality review. Unique tasks and project-based activities are more prone to follow-up problems as performance metrics are not readily defined. Be sure to pause upon assignment of unique tasks/projects and determine what success and completion looks like with the employee(s) responsible for the accomplishment of the task/project.
I once had a client who, sales meeting after sales meeting, would just “talk about it” when sales reps did not meet their numbers. When I asked the CEO what the consequences were for not hitting sales targets, he ultimately had to admit, “There are none.” (In this case, the lack of consequences was directly related to the reality that there were no REAL expectations for performance.)
Consequences need to be judiciously applied and they must match the level of nonperformance demonstrated. A simple “accountability ladder” includes:
- Ask for updates throughout the project: Simply putting someone on the spot by asking how they’re doing with a project/task/effort automatically signals your interest and your expectation.
- Provide a statement of unacceptability: At some point, nonperformance must be acknowledged with a statement that basically says, “This is not acceptable.”
- Apply tangible consequences: Beyond words, tangible consequences can/should be applied. These may include getting written up, loss of privileges, removal from an assignment or anything else that goes beyond mere words. The ultimate tangible consequence to nonperformance would be termination.
And finally, eliminate the gray areas in goals, responsibilities, authorities and accountability. All businesses have gray areas but the more you have, the less likely you will be able to hold people accountable. Have you had a specific experience using these techniques to hold your team and yourself accountable?