Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

Performance Management = Count the Hours Worked? Or the Results Produced?

I love reading The Economist magazine for its useful perspective on the world. Last week an article included a summary of the evolution of “performance management” at work.  Here it is:

  1. Before the industrial age, most people worked in their own farm or workshop and were paid for the amount they produced.
  2. When machines were developed and were more efficient than cottage-industry methods, factories emerged. Suddenly, workers were not paid for their output, but for their time – they were required to clock in and out.
  3. Today, work hours are still the measure, and employees have found ways to make it look like they are working longer hours than they really are. The article mentioned some tricks they play to maintain their image as a performer:
    • Leave a jacket on your office chair;
    • Walk around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard; and/or
    • Send emails at odd hours.

The name for this new phenomenon is “presenteeism”: being present but not productive. This is because, the article states, “managers, who are often no good at judging employees’ performance, use time in the office as a proxy”. Some take the shortcut of “judging” performance based on the hours worked rather than understanding the actual results produced. That decision can create a damaging idea of what workplace “performance” means.

Perform: The original meaning is “To provide thoroughly. To deliver completely, as promised.” That tells us performance is the fulfillment of a promise for an action or delivery of a product, service, or communication. It means a manager has to clarify which results, by whom, and by when – not to mention discussing resources, and identifying relevant key players. It requires thoughtful, productive communication, including a “performance conversation” in which the manager clarifies the results and timelines then gets an agreement – a promise from the employee – to deliver the intended result(s).

Performance is not determined by a judgment based on apparent work hours. It entails tracking promises for results and the results produced and delivered.  But managers who take that performance-judgment shortcut are also short-circuiting the work of management.

A “performance review” is more than checking a time clock or filling out a form. It looks at the promises made and/or revised, promises kept, and promises not kept. It is more objective than subjective, looking at what results each person (or team) actually produced.

It does take time and attention to manage performance in terms of results, so I see why some managers rely on their personal judgment instead. It’s sort of like leaving a jacket on their office chair or walking around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard. Looking busy will often be perceived as being productive.

Evaluating Leaders – It’s Not a Popularity Contest

My husband Jeffrey has finally submitted his paper on the “leadership of change” to an international academic journal. It has been in development for over 3 years and could alter the research approach to leadership. I hope it does – that research needs help!

Consider the way researchers evaluate the effectiveness of leadership: they do a survey. Think about that. Can we say whether someone’s leadership is effective based on the opinions of their colleagues? If we admire someone in a leadership position, or think s/he is a great person – does that mean they are a good leader? Aren’t we supposed to look at the results they produce?

Effectiveness, after all, is about producing effects, i.e., results. How about asking whether a “change leader” actually made the intended change happen? Maybe even look to see if the change was accomplished on time? And on budget, too.

Jeffrey’s paper identified three basic functions that together add up to good leadership: (1) structuring work; (2) maintaining group integration; and (3) adapting and innovating as needed. One important point he made is that those three things do not need to be done by a single individual. In other words, leadership can be a distributed phenomenon – a collection of people that together contribute to getting those three things right.

So, you might be good at setting up the structures for getting all the necessary tasks done, while Darryl in the next office is great at keeping the group working well together with good internal communication. And maybe the IT team on the third floor brings their expertise to watch the progress of the initiative and make sure that surprises are addressed in an appropriate and timely way. The three of us – two individuals and a group – make up a good leadership team.

Where do those opinion surveys fit in?  They can help us see how people think you are doing with organizing task assignments, or how Darryl is doing with group cohesion, or if the IT team is seeing all the places that need attention. Asking people what they think of the way things are going and whether they think the leaders are on top of things is useful to learn something about the culture and climate, and can also provide feedback to the leadership team on all three leadership functions.

Opinion surveys have a role to play, but not in determining the effectiveness of a leader or a group of leaders. Thinking highly of someone doesn’t mean they are effective. To know about that, we need objective measures of results and outcomes. Which means the goals have to be clear and the steps to accomplishment spelled out for all to see. And then we need to check on how things are going at regular intervals: are we behind schedule or over the budget this week? Effectiveness isn’t a personality thing. It’s about measures and status updates. Accountability starts at the top. So there.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

Getting Things Done. Or Not.

Did anyone ever tell you something that startled you into a new reality? Our publisher (of “The Four Conversations” book) startled me with what turned out to be a great awakening. Two recent news items reminded me of that truth.

We – my husband-coauthor Jeffrey and the publisher – were discussing possible subtitles for our book. I argued for using the phrase, “A Practical Way for Getting Things Done”. After I’d proposed it 3 times, the publisher said, ever so gently, “Laurie, not everybody is interested in getting things done.”

I remember how stunned I was. Really? There are people who don’t want to get things done? What are they doing with their lives? But since then, I’ve noticed how many people can ignore their ever-growing pile of unfinished tasks, or the things they should throw out or give away, or situations that are dangerous and need to be faced promptly. I hadn’t noticed all that before.

Those recent news items? One, a report on Bob Woodward’s book “Fear”, was about Trump’s anger over South Korea’s trade surplus with America. Trump wanted to withdraw from a trade deal with them, but his attorney swiped the paperwork off his desk so he wouldn’t sign it. He knew that Trump “seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list – in his mind or anywhere else – of tasks to complete.”

The other item was in last Sunday’s New York Times about Japan’s nuclear waste. They’ve been building a nuclear waste recycling plant for the last 30 years and it’s still not done. But they can’t give up the project, because the community hosting the facility doesn’t want to face the real problem: recycling the waste is not going to solve over 47 metric tons of plutonium that needs to be safely stored and/or permanently disposed. The community doesn’t want to host a storage site, and disposition is surely impossible in Japan.

Does anybody want to get things done? Apparently, Trump does not keep a list of Things to Do – not on paper or in his head. And Japan is going around in circles to avoid making a permanent plan for solving their nuclear waste problem (so is the U.S.).

It’s simple to make a “To-Do” or a “Results Wanted” list of unfinished things, but it’s hard to face how much we’ve got lying around waiting to be done. I guess we’d rather lie around. But even one completion can give us energy and relief – and it’s usually worth the effort.

If you aren’t getting things done at the rate you’d like, you can always try communication. Propose a task or project to someone else (Initiative conversation). Talk with them about how that task or project might be accomplished (Understanding conversation). Make a request that the other person do some or all of what is required to get it done by a certain time, or even just agree to be a support for you as you take it on yourself (Performance conversation). Follow up on how it’s going by whatever due date(s) you’ve set (Closure conversation).

PS – The subtitle we finally agreed on for our book was “Daily Communication that Gets Results”. Don’t read it unless you want some ideas on getting things done.

Create Certainty for Yourself and Others – Start Saying “By When”

I just read an article about “time” in The Economist. It was in the business section, so I expected it would say something about managers setting due dates for assignments (or not) – maybe in the context of high performance or something like that.

Nope. It was about whether “long-term strategizing” or “following mega-trends” would help businesses be more competitive in the marketplace. Their conclusion was interesting: “Too much emphasis on the distant future is a waste of time.” OK, amen to that.

But, that is a 10,000-foot view of time. Admittedly, it is a valuable perspective, but I’d like to see more discussion about workplace communication at the 1000-foot level. And even the 100-foot level. I’ve had more than a few examples recently of people leaving a “time” commitment out of their interactions, such as:

  • The colleague who answers my email requests for his conference presentation materials by saying, “I got your information”;
  • The woman at the moving company who wouldn’t commit to a time for the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new residence; and
  • The supervisor in the dining room who accepts every complaint – about food or service – with a generous smile and a promise to do something about it, though never saying “by when”.

A few of my former clients called me the “by-when-lady”, because every time they told me what they were going to do for one of our projects, I would ask, “By when?” That question always plunged them deep into their heads, where they searched for an answer. At some point they got used to thinking in terms of scheduling a due date for their work agreements with me.

I usually have to check my calendar before I can answer a “By when” question. But without knowing specific times when I will get back to them, other people are left either waiting or doing follow-up with me. Neither of those options is productive or enjoyable – and a little of our energy leaks away every time either one of us thinks about that unfinished business. Better to pick a time, enter it into the schedule, and make it happen.

The challenge is this: are we willing to be responsible for supporting other people in being productive too? Or do we leave them waiting, and having to follow up with us?  People do appreciate certainty in their lives, at work and elsewhere.  If we can give them that simply by including a “by when”, a date-and-time, we are granting them a little more peace of mind than they would have had without it. In these uncertain times, that is a lovely gift.

Personal productivity or accomplishment depends on the agreements we make with others. An agreement always has three ingredients: What are we going to produce + When will we deliver it + Why does it matter. If we leave out that middle one, we don’t have an agreement. Hope is good, but a promise for delivery is gold.

The Perils of a Too-High Hierarchy: All Talk No Listen

I studied an organization that had quite a few unhappy people at “the bottom” of one of its departments. After several meetings and some 1-on-1 interviews, I heard from people who were looking for another job due to favoritism and rudeness by their supervisors. That wasn’t the biggest problem, however.

Seventeen people made up a direct-service group with daily customer contact. “We call ourselves the Service Bottom”, one group member told me. “We are fending for ourselves down here with no connection to the top of the organization. We serve the customers as best we can, but we are definitely not a well-organized service team. We have 3 supervisors who are focused on their own job interests instead of our group performance.”

“That’s not true!” one Executive said (loudly) to me when I told him about that comment. “Our Supervisor Team collaborates to make plans and work with the service staff.”

My observations, however, showed the large distance between the Executive and the Service Bottom that prevented him from seeing what was happening. Seven layers filled that gap: Senior Director, Director, Manager, Assistant Manager, Service Chief, Supervisor, and Team Leader. Each layer was primarily focused on its own concerns, with most attention going upward in the hierarchy, not down to the people below. The Executive was certain that the 3 supervisors heading up the Service Bottom worked in coordination to support their people. But in fact, they were competing for promotion to replace the Service Chief who was leaving at the end of the month.

I gave the 17 people in the Service Bottom group our Group Workplace Assessment, to find out where the problems really were. Here are the top three workplace issues, as reported by group members:

  1. Lack of accountability: Instructions are given with no follow-up to see if they were carried out; there are no measures of good vs. bad performance; and there is no formal system for tracking customer satisfaction or complaints.
  2. Poor quality work: The lack of follow-up by Supervisors meant that they didn’t see the difference between good employees and ineffective ones, so training efforts were not improved to assist service staff.
  3. Incomplete conversations: Service staff did not have the opportunity to have a dialogue with Supervisors regarding what they saw as dysfunctional work patterns in their group. Communication with Supervisors and their staff was “all one-way, from boss down to worker”. Supervisors did not get useful feedback on the challenges staff members were facing every day.

I met with the Supervisors and shared this data with them. One said, “We stopped having regular meetings with staff about 5 months ago. I guess this is why we needed those meetings.” Another said, “It’s good to see the specifics about what is missing. Now I think I know what would solve this.” The third said, “Don’t show this to our bosses, okay?”

I said I wouldn’t , and that we could work together to improve staff effectiveness. Then I showed them the recommendations from the version of the Group Workplace Assessment that I used: the Manager Subscription. We scheduled three meetings with the Service Group members too study the communication changes identified in the recommendations. We’ve had one of those meetings already, and all participants are optimistic about the new communications they are now practicing.

Sometimes a hierarchy is just too high. Executives can see what’s on the horizon, but do not know what is going on in the deep, where staff meet the customers, contractors, and competition. A little diagnostic work and a few communication changes can bridge the gap.

Breaking News: Accountability Can Be Killed by Vocabulary

I learned something this week: accountability isn’t just a matter of the conversations we use. It can also be ruined by the words we use.  Wow.

My “conversations” theory – which is still valid, by the way – is that Accountability is strengthened by conversations that (1) establish agreements and (2) follow up on those agreements. Let’s say we have a (performance) conversation, in which I agree to bring some boxes over to your place so that you can pack up your antique toy cars and take them to an auction. We agree that I’ll deliver them Tuesday morning.

Depending on how reliable I’ve been with past promises, you might assume I will keep my word and not bother to follow up with a second conversation. Or, maybe you’ll decide to call me Monday evening and ask, “Are we still on for you bringing those boxes over tomorrow morning?” Or, if I didn’t get them to you on Tuesday morning, you would likely call me and ask where those boxes are. Either one of those would be a closure conversation.

Accountability begins with performance conversations: a request plus a promise makes an agreement. Then accountability is completed with a closure conversation: Was the agreement kept? Do we need a new agreement? Did something unexpected happen that needs to be dealt with?

This week, however, I saw a demonstration of what I will now call “Accountability Prevention”. A woman, let’s call her Millie, worked at a moving company and was responsible for coordinating the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new home. Millie said the delivery date would be no later than July 9th.  On July 9th, my sister texted Millie, saying, “What time will my things be delivered?” Here are some of the statements she got back from Millie over the next 8 hours:

  • I’m trying to reach the driver.
  • I tried calling you and got a busy signal.
  • The driver tried to load your shipment from the warehouse, but he was unable to do it because of a miscommunication.
  • The local agency has been trying to get the containers, but they haven’t arrived yet.
  • I will try calling you again after my meeting this morning.

You notice the word try?  That word was used rather than making a promise, which would have sounded more like, “I will call the driver and get back to you within an hour.” Or, I will call you at ten this morning.” Or, “I will see that the warehouse releases your containers to the driver and let you know your expected arrival time.”

My sister noticed that Millie was really “trying” – in every sense of the word – rather than committing to something specific. Unfortunately, my sister – an executive at heart – has little sympathy for people who are “trying” rather than performing. Now our radar is now out for the try word, because if we let it stay in any conversation we’re having it will block access to creating an agreement. Without agreements, and the follow-up they make possible, there is no accountability. Sometimes it is best not to try.

How to Handle Lateness – It’s Everywhere!

Projects are late. Promises aren’t kept. Schedules are tweaked or ignored. We human beings are pretty bad at starting and ending our tasks on time, no matter how much planning we do.

A good article-plus-podcast Why We’re Late explains the causes. One is that lateness is due to the “planning fallacy” – our estimates of how long a task or project will take is often too optimistic. We don’t plan for all the possible interruptions we might encounter – after all, as the article said, we plan to succeed, not to fail. Two other contributors to lateness are:

  1. On big complex projects, we often forget to plan for the coordination required to pull various aspects of the project together.
  2. On a more personal level, we forget that humans aren’t very good at “impulse control”, meaning we procrastinate because we do what we want to do at the moment, instead of sticking to our scheduled plan. Like, I’m going to check my email for a minute first? Yeah, sure, and half an hour later I’m into a whole other mini-project. We humans are pretty distractible!

Solutions? They mention software that helps project team members see what other players are responsible for, and how project parts are related by schedules and dependencies. They suggest tracking your performance – get data on what takes a project off-course or distracts you personally from getting a task done. And also, of course, using that data to improve your time estimates.

Lateness is everywhere. People are late to meetings. Managers give assignments without a specific deadline, often over-using the word “priority” as if that will make things go faster. And when an assignment is turned in late, nobody says, “This is three days overdue.” We let it go.

Communication can shift the lateness habits of a work group. Performance Conversations and Closure Conversations help give more attention to timelines, including follow-up on whether deadlines were met.

  • Alex says, “I’d like to present this policy brief at the Board Meeting on Tuesday. Can you get the references needed, collect comments from the other three Advisors, and include the changes they suggest? I would need that finished by Friday close of business.”
  • Justin says, “Sure, I can do that. Send it over to me.”
  • Alex confirms that they have an agreement: “You promise you have time for this? I don’t want to be scrambling to pull things together on Monday.”
  • Justin: “Yep. Consider it done.”

So, a request from Alex + a promise from Justin = an agreement. Performance Conversation complete.

  • Justin, on Friday at 5:45, says, “Sorry, but one of the Advisors hasn’t responded yet. I’ve sent you the update using comments from the other two, but don’t know if that’s enough.”
  • Alex says, “Thanks, I’ll look at it over the weekend. But, FYI, close of business means 5:00 PM, not 5:45, so I was wondering whether you were going to deliver. I say this because I want all of us to pay more attention to keeping time agreements. I’ll talk with Advisor #3 this weekend about that too. Sorry I didn’t make it clearer before. And, despite being picky about timing, I really appreciate that you’ve made it possible for me to review this and plan my Board presentation over the weekend. Thank you very much.”

Closure Conversation complete. Bringing all “four A’s” into a conversation is powerful:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the situation – what happened and why it matters;
  • Appreciate the people – recognize the value of their effort and contribution;
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings – cleanup improves trust; and
  • Amend broken agreements – set up for a future where agreements can be honored.

The article pointed out there is data going back more than 100 years showing that at least 80% of projects have cost and/or time over-runs. Making clear agreements, and communicating with people about the success and failure of those agreements, can shift the communication habits of a work group to support being on time.

Training for Accountability: First Things First

Erin, a restaurant manager I know, was approached by a complaining customer the other day. Here’s a summary of what she told me about it:

  • Customer: The Servers here never paid any attention to us for over 15 minutes. No one even stopped by to say they would get back to us. Do your people know which tables they are responsible for serving?
  • Erin: Yes – it was really busy. And they are young, and most of them only work part-time. We train them, but they don’t always pay attention.

OK, it sounds like Erin is not listening to her Complaining Customer. But it got worse:

  • Erin continues, “For example, we have been training them how to set the tables properly – the flowers in the center, the salt and pepper on the right side, the sweetener on the left. But still they forget!”

How did Erin veer off into table-setting décor? She was defensive in the face of a complaint, and maybe that impaired her ability to sincerely acknowledge what the customer was saying. I heard the complaint as Servers neglecting their customers or not “owning” their tables. But maybe they don’t have “their” tables – maybe they just pay attention to certain people or locations they prefer.

I remembered putting myself through college as a waitress, when my boss made it very clear which tables I needed to tend to. Whoever sat at “my table” was “my customer”. I never heard much about settings or floral décor, just an emphasis on “clean and neat”. If your training emphasizes where to put the salt shaker, that’s what people will think is most important.

Erin’s job is now to improve her staff’s accountability for customer-oriented results. People can be accountable for the products, services, and communications they deliver – but only if they know exactly what those “deliverables” are. At a restaurant, greeting customers is one deliverable; taking food orders from customer to kitchen is another. Bringing food, checking on customer needs, and clearing dishes – all are results a restaurant Server is accountable for delivering. Ideally, that’s the core of training.

Erin and I talked about this, and at some point, Erin said, “You know, with such slow service I bet that customer didn’t give a hoot about the flowers, or whether the sweeteners were on left or even there at all. I’d better train people on what good customer service looks like.”

Accountability’s middle name is “count”, which is a clue that training people on their work responsibilities needs to be specific. If Erin’s servers don’t “own” their station of 4-7 tables (depending on space arrangements, etc.), then it’s time to invent the idea of “stations”, number the tables, and assign certain table numbers to each Server – and talk about the specifics of serving customers at those tables. That is something everyone can count, and Erin can count on her people to serve customers well.