Where Accountability Comes From – How to Support People in Honoring Their Word

Many people are disappointed to discover that not everyone actually does what they promise. Several students recently argued for the “personality theory” of accountability, saying that some people are just accountable by nature, and others are not.

If you want people around you to be more accountable around you, how do you make that happen? Let’s assume that the other person clearly understands what is expected from them – they know what the task is and what the result should look like. If that’s true, then all it takes is some productive communication.

First conversation: Your request, their assignment. “Dave, will you have the monthly Team Report ready before our Friday morning meeting with the VPs?”

  • If the answer is yes, you have created an agreement for something – a product, service, or communication – to be done or delivered, by a specific time and for a specific purpose.
  • If the answer is no, you have a debrief conversation: “What is in the way for you to get that done?” This is where you listen, perhaps come up with a Plan B, and maybe getting some help for Dave or assigning it to someone else.
  • If the answer is a counter-offer, like they can’t get it done before the Friday meeting, you either accept the new timeline or you go to a Plan B, maybe changing the agenda for the meeting.

Second conversation: Confirm the agreement. This is important, but doesn’t have to be strict or formal. All you want is to make sure they know that you are counting on them to honor their word. “Great, Dave. So you’ll get what you need from Shirley and have that on my desk no later than 8:15 Friday morning?” (This is where Dave at least needs to nod his head.)

Third conversation: Complete the agreement, whatever happens.

  • If Dave delivered, a thank-you and a little appreciation is in order. “Good for you, Dave. I was able to get the VPs updated at the Friday meeting because you delivered the Team Report. Thanks for that.”
  • If Dave didn’t deliver, you need to set up the full Closure Conversation. “Uh oh, Dave. I was caught short in the meeting without the report you said you would give me. We need to talk. In a nutshell, we need to look at what happened and how to make sure that never happens again. Are you available to talk now, or should I come back later today?”

Accountability is about keeping track of what you promise others and what they promise you. But that’s only the first half of it. You also have to follow up after the success or failure of delivery on every promise.

One manager, an MBA student, said, “I shouldn’t have to do that follow-up stuff. They should keep their word.” The professor, an older man and a close friend of mine (J) said, “Yes, and I should have more hair. As a manager, you can drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. It won’t help you.”

If you want more accountability, there are 3 conversations to have. It doesn’t take too long for people to get the idea that making an agreement with you is something that deserves their full attention. And that is a good thing.

Cynicism and Resistance to Change – What Works?

Cynicism is a unique form of resistance to change. It’s a way of saying, “This will never work so I’m not even going to participate.” People tune out, or surrender, without even a flicker of interest in the possibility of making something happen. Cynicism is a nasty disease in many organizations (and in many households, too). It is contagious – in part because people can make their cynical statements sound wise and experienced, often humorous or sarcastic. Having been a management consultant, charged with implementing organization changes, I’ve heard lots of those:

  • “Talk to Arnie about that idea. He loves science fiction.”
  • “Last time they did that, 24 people lost their jobs. You won’t get much help from us.”
  • “It won’t work here. This is a government organization.”
  • “We’ve tried that every year since 1972. Is it the 1-year anniversary already?”

We have a lot of data on handling resistance to change from my consulting practice and from Jeffrey’s MBA classes. Here are three lessons we learned:

  1. Cynicism is a signal that the change process was not designed with employee input – people’s ideas and perspectives were not considered in planning the course of the change. There was little recognition that the change would rearrange (and in some cases, damage) people’s daily work activities and communication links, causing them personal and professional setbacks.
  2. Cynicism is a sign of unfinished business. Something happened in the past – a project, a merger, a change of some kind – that was never completely closed out. When the change was finished, people had no way to say what happened to them, or to ask for help in repairing the damages or disruptions they experienced. Many are still injured in some way, perhaps having missed a raise or promotion, or simply not being heard.
  3. A person’s cynicism puts blame on “the system”, “management”, or just “them”. It avoids any attempt to consider what personal role someone might have had, or wanted to have, in the change process or its outcomes. It also prevents any serious inquiry into what might work, due to the firmly held view that “nothing will work here” – which prevents future changes from going smoothly.

What to do? Meet with the key people involved in the past changes, and create closure. I used two whiteboards, labeling them “What Did Work?” and “What Didn’t Work?”, and asked people to tell me about the last big organizational change in those terms. I wrote down each response, building both lists. If the “what worked” list didn’t have much in it, I asked them, “What would have worked?”, which usually triggered ideas.

These conversations sometimes took an hour, sometimes longer. The tone of the conversation usually shifted after about 20 minutes, from expressions of individual anger to making corrections clarifying what was already written on one of the lists, or adding new memories and ideas. At some point, the responses became relatively free of cynicism and sarcasm, and I could ask my punchline question:

“If we could find ways to prevent or fix all of the things on the “Didn’t Work” list, and if we used some of these ideas from the “What Worked” list, then could we make any future changes happen successfully?”  This usually opened a discussion of what would have the next change go more smoothly, with less pushback, resistance, and fallout.

Sometimes, to move ahead, we need to help people close out the past and see it in a new light. Even when executives want to move forward quickly, it is useful to take the time to assist key players in getting on board. Changes don’t work if people aren’t listening.

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.

The Power of Promising: Listener + Do + Due 

There’s this Ugly Chore that has been lingering in my life for way too long now: the 6 boxes of files left from my management consulting career. When you retire from your own business, what do you do with all that stuff? I had a plan: write it up in a bunch of “how-to” articles and make those ideas available to others who might want to put the ideas to use. Now, a year later, everybody I know – family, friends, and neighbors – has surely tired of hearing about this genius plan of mine.

Last week, I thought up a new way to go through those boxes, quickly get rid of what I don’t want, and make little files of a few ideas worth saving for potential articles. I tested it out, and it worked – now I have 1 bag of paper to recycle, 1 empty box, and a few skinny files with article names on them. Yay!

Looking at the other 5 boxes, I had the same old feeling of “I don’t want to”. But I have a work-around to bypass that particular voice in my head. I make a promise to somebody who will want to hear that I was successful. So I told Ray, a former partner in managing a conference, that I would have the remaining 3 client file boxes emptied by the end of this week, and the 2 reference file boxes gone by the end of the week after that. A promise to Ray is nothing to take lightly – he’s a guy who pays attention when someone gives their word. So now I have boxed myself in to finishing the Boxes Project.

Not everybody has a guy like that in their lives, but everybody has someone – a Listener – who will hear to a Do + Due promise. That’s when you make a promise to someone (“Listener”) that you will take an action (“Do), and then also promise a date by when you’ll report back to them on your results (“Due”). For me, it’s a good way to practice honoring my word and exercise my integrity muscle. It’s also a way to get myself into action on something I’ve been putting off.

By February 12th, all 6 of those boxes will be empty, and the recycle truck will get everything that’s just taking up space. Completion is a wonderful thing! So is the power of a promise for action and results with a self-imposed deadline to report on what happened. Even the nastiest tasks will have to bow to that!

Test it out: maybe pick one thing you don’t want to do. Find your Listener, promise what you’ll Do, and promise a Due-date for your follow-through. If you take me up on this, it would be fun it you’d let me know what you learn.

No Closure, No Accomplishment

A normally upbeat and productive guy was suddenly downcast and discouraged yesterday morning. I went in to see Chuck and talk about progress on his most important project – implementing an employee development program – and he wasn’t even interested anymore. Wow.

“This project doesn’t matter,” he said. “I thought it would make a huge difference in the whole department, and get people working together in a new way, being more productive and satisfied. Nope. Nobody cares.”

That led us into talking about who he thinks should care about this, and how he knows they don’t. That’s when I found out about the department meeting two days ago. On Monday, two bosses in the organization – both VPs – had attended the department meeting in Chuck’s area. When Chuck presented an update on his Team Building project – progress, participation, and on-time project performance – all the statistics were looking good.

“But the Veeps didn’t ask anything about it, and didn’t even seem like they thought it was a good idea,” Chuck said. “My boss didn’t speak up for it either. I’m tired of busting my butt on things that don’t make any difference.”

I’ve been a management consultant my whole career. That means as soon as I’m done talking with Chuck, I can zip over to those two VPs and have a chat about this project and the importance of speaking up for it. So I did that. I saw Chuck later that afternoon, and he’d regained some energy.

“I got a call from one of those Veeps,” he told me. “She asked how long my project had been going on, and seemed surprised it was such a new idea and was already showing good results. Then she asked me to come and talk with her team at their next meeting, because they might want to do something like that in their division.”

His energy was coming back. All it took was for him to have a sense of the value of this thing, and when nobody bothered to have even a quick Debrief-and-Thanks conversation, the air went out of his enthusiasm. Closure conversations are the most necessary conversations in any relationship – at work or at home. Acknowledge the facts – that’s the debrief part. Appreciate the people – that’s the thanks part. And it can be useful to dust out any crumbs of discontent too, by adding the other 2 pieces: apologize for anything that’s been left swept under a rug, and update any old expectations from the past so they fit well with today’s reality.

Closure conversations can restore a sense of accomplishment and resuscitate a neglected project. Sometimes a little Thank You, laced with some appreciation of the facts in the matter, makes a big difference.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to https://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Big Change, Part II: Expanding the Executive Team

Four weary senior executives came home from their 2-day “huddle” with a decision to close a regional office and eliminate 11 jobs in their company – the only solution they could find to solve the problems identified by a recent financial audit. The decision to decision to “outsource” the company’s marketing and communications responsibilities was daunting on several fronts.

“It’s worse than just restructuring,” Matthew, the CEO, said. “We will be losing people who are good people, good workers, good talent. It’s sad, and we will have to learn how to manage contracted firms to get the work done. It will be cheaper, but I wish we didn’t have to take this road.”

All 4 executive decision-makers were apprehensive about how to bring the company’s other 7 managers on board with their plan. One of those managers would lose all 11 of the staff members, but all of them would face changes in their job responsibilities. And all of them would feel bad about bringing this kind of news to a team that had worked together for many years.

What pattern of conversations is going to have everyone move forward? The newly defined “Executive Team” went to work (with a bit of facilitation assistance).

  • Closure conversation: A summary of the financial audit was presented to give everyone the facts of the situation. There was very little discussion about this, as they all knew that expenses had been greater than revenue for quite a while.
  • Initiative conversation: Matthew announced the decision to close the Dayton office, eliminate the jobs of 11 marketing and communication personnel, and bring in a private firm specializing in those functions. There was silence for a bit, then questions, then a break for lunch. Not everyone was interested in eating.
  • Understanding conversation: How can we make this announcement about the office closing, tell staff they’re being laid off, support new employment opportunities for 11 people, solicit bids for marketing firms to take over the necessary functions, terminate the employees, and bring on a new firm? The discussion took all afternoon and the next morning. It produced a list of tasks, results, and timelines for what was needed over the next 6 months.
  • Performance conversation: Who will do what, and when? Each task needed an owner or “point person” as well as a partner or two on the Executive Team. This increased the “reality factor”, as one participant said, and the specifics about each task, result, and timeline were adjusted accordingly.
  • Closure conversation: We have decided what to do. We will keep this confidential until we make the announcement to the staff in Dayton and the other staff being terminated. We each have our own tasks and timelines, and we will have Executive Team meetings once a week to stay on the same page and update our progress.

The Operations executive noticed something as everyone was packing their briefcases to leave for the day. “You know,” he said, “I have been so focused on the logistics of this change that I forgot to invite one person to attend these meetings. I didn’t ask the HR person to be here. I’ll bring her on board tomorrow when we’re back in the office.”

Uh oh. More on that later.

Big Change, Part I: Conversations for Possibility

A client organization has received a daunting financial audit: they’re losing money and must act quickly to save the company. I met with Matthew, the CEO, to discuss the way forward. He said, “My top 3 executives and I went into a 2-day “huddle” to review the audit report and talk about what we should do. On day 1, we had lots of ideas, threw some out, and kept some for later. On day 2, we reviewed what was left and made a big decision.”

That 2-day discussion is called a “conversation for possibility”, and in this case, it was completed by making an agreement for action. The conversation for possibility looked like this:

  • Initiative conversation: Let’s restructure the organization. We could combine these two departments, change those job titles, and update the responsibilities for all the mid-level employees.
  • Understanding conversation:
    • That would require relocating Chuck’s people in the Dayton office, and we don’t have room for them here.
    • I have space in the Rogers Road facility. But I’m pretty sure the department manager wouldn’t want to relocate: His kids are in school in Dayton.
    • So we could keep Chuck in Dayton, and have that part of his staff move to Rogers Road, then give Chuck the HR section along with his communications staff responsibilities.
    • Yes, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of our money-drain.

This is what it sounded like at the beginning of those two days – aren’t you glad you weren’t there?

At the end of the Initiative and Understanding conversations, they came to a decision: they would close the Dayton office altogether, “outsource” the marketing and communications functions in all offices, and redefine remaining jobs as needed. A tough call.

Conversations for possibility are made up of Initiative and Understanding conversations, and are intended to explore both what is possible, and the effects or impacts of each option proposed. They don’t always end in a decision or agreement, but in this case, they did.

“There were a few tears shed,” Matthew told me. “But we have to be responsible for the organization as a whole, and help people with the adjustments. And we have to get the other top managers in the company on board with this decision.”

That’s when they called for help with implementation. More on that later.

Do Leaders Focus on Results or People?

A while back (December 2013), the Harvard Business Review had an article on the subject of leaders and results-focus vs. people-focus. The verdict is you need to focus on both results and people. But we knew that, right? The trick is figuring out how to do that.

How you do that is in communications – more specifically, by using productive conversations. But we knew that too, didn’t we?

For a focus on results, build your strengths in using Performance conversations. Practice making effective requests and promises, and then use those to establish good agreements with people for what each of you will do or produce.

For a focus on people, improve your ability to have Understanding conversations. Practice having dialogues where you ask other people for input about a particular task or project, and use the feedback to revise the task or project goals, measures, and responsibilities. Hint: it requires listening and validating their responses by using them.

To strengthen both of these focuses, practice gaining mastery in Closure conversations:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter – what were the agreements you both made for results and timelines, and what actually happened?
  • Appreciate the people – what do they bring to the project that you see is particularly valuable?
  • Apologize for mistakes or misunderstandings – take responsibility for things that were left unclear or didn’t work for some reason.
  • Amend broken agreements – clean up the past, including what didn’t work, and make fresh agreements that you have confidence will work now.

The mysteries of leadership and management are not solved by listing the traits and characteristics you need. The solution is in practicing ways of doing the things that have been demonstrated to be effective. Saying “focus on results” or “focus on people” (or both) is not enough. We need to practice the conversations that will produce the focus we need.

To see the HBR article, go to https://hbr.org/2013/12/should-leaders-focus-on-results-or-on-people/

No Thanks!

Last week’s issue of The Economist reported on “rogue employees” who can cause more damage to their company than competitors can. In a 2013 poll, it was discovered that 70% of companies report having employees who committed fraud of some kind: padding expenses, using company technology for their own purposes, or stealing corporate client lists.

Shocking, yes? But the article goes on to identify some pretty ugly ways of dealing with it. Use “spies” to hang around in the smoking room or go out for drinks after work. Employ forensic accountants. Listen to gossip. Yipes.

But they ended the discussion beautifully, noting that a recent study (by Accenture) found 43% of employees surveyed said they received no recognition for their work. None. The Economist’s suggestion? Treat your employees (and maybe other people too?) with respect.

Here’s one way to do that: use Closure Conversations regularly.

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter: What they did, what you did, what happened.
  • Appreciate the person: Recognize something you value about them and/or what they have said or done. Say “Thanks!” every now and then, specifying what you are thanking them for – a good job, a good deed, or just being on time.
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings: This isn’t about anybody being right or wrong, it’s about pointing out mistakes and misunderstandings between you, and apologizing for your role in that. A little “ownership” goes a long way to close out the past and open the possibility of a new future.
  • Amend broken agreements: Reset your relationship in a way that supports you both, maybe changing some of the plans or understandings you had before, in a way that can set up a more satisfactory relationship going forward.

A relationship without even an occasional “Thank you” can become very strained. Maybe strained enough that you want to pad your expense report just to make up the deficit.

A healthy closure conversation is cheaper than a forensic accountant, and takes less time than hanging around the smoking room listening to gossip, right?