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.

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.

The Missing Piece in Managing for Results: Know Your CRABs (no, not that kind!)

We all know people work to produce results, right?  Produce a sale, a widget, a TV show – there are lots of kinds of results. It’s great if producing the result also produces a paycheck or some other reward.  Either way, the purpose of work is for the results.

That’s why a good manager knows it’s important to be clear about the results people should produce. And equally important, be clear about the goals – the reasons for producing those results. But… many managers, even the best ones, leave out something important (besides giving deadlines, which I wrote about earlier this month). They leave out the “CRABs”.

We forget to tell people that for every goal, and every result, there are people we should consult, i.e., people who have resources we want, people who need to approve some part of what we’re doing, and probably a user-customer at the end of the line who has a preference or opinion you should know about. Here’s how to remember who those people are:

  1. Collaborators – the people who have information we need, such as scope, constraints, and other professional perspectives;
  2. Resource providers – those with money, people, and know-how that could be critical to what we want to produce;
  3. Authorities – the people who will sign off, or reward (and punish, if necessary) some of the details of our work; and
  4. Beneficiaries – the people who are going to use and appreciate (or complain about) the results of our work.

These are the CRABs associated with every goal and every work assignment. They need to be our partners in performance, but they are too often invisible to us. Sometimes we forget they’re there until it’s too late! CRABs are a key part of your “performance circle” to produce results.

You can see the sketch of a CRAB network in the picture accompanying this blogpost. I drew it up as part of a project with people who were working at nuclear power plants. Note: I was a management consultant for a long time and have lots of these diagrams.

Identifying CRABs is a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has a goal and a result to produce. Find out about the individuals and groups who will likely have (or want to have) something to say about what you are doing or producing. Maybe get in touch with them early on, to let them know what you’re up to and to learn about their perspective on the matter.

But don’t get crabby, even if they say something negative. Those CRABs could be around for a long time.

PS – You don’t need to mention that you call them CRABs. ?

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.

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.

Servant Leadership vs. Management

I found this image online that itemized the “7 pillars of servant leadership”. OMG. I am such a total failure!

  1. Person of Character. I suppose I have a character, or maybe I even AM a character, but I don’t think either of those interpretations will meet servant-leader standards.
  2. Puts People First. Flunk this one too. My focus is on action, results, and outcomes – and engaging people in putting their attention on that. I don’t focus on people first, but even so, some of my best friends are people.
  3. Skilled Communicator. Well, I’m not a terrible communicator, but not sure if I qualify as “skilled”. I don’t always use the best practices I’ve been taught, and sometimes make communication mistakes. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at cleaning those up afterward.
  4. Compassionate Collaborator. Huh? Who put those two words together? I suspect it’s an attempt to combine collaborating with others while also “developing” them. I’d get about a C+.
  5. Has Foresight. I might pass this one, since I’m often looking ahead to see what’s coming in different projects. But I’ve really been enjoying lots of surprises lately, so foresight only goes so far.
  6. Systems Thinker. Nailed this one! I’m so addicted to systems thinking that I got a PhD in it. I love looking at things in context and finding connections that can make solutions and breakthroughs easier.
  7. Leads with Moral Authority. Clueless here. I don’t even know what this means. Does it require certain religious beliefs, or ethics training? Flunked this one too.

So, thanks to #6, I am one seventh of a servant leader. I just wrote a paper on leadership vs. management, and will present it at a conference in March. Frankly, the state of leadership literature and training today is quite a mess.

Leadership is useful for creating mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) – and for communicating it regularly. But I can do much of that for myself, so I’m hooked on management. One comprehensive definition of that is: “the function that coordinates the efforts of people to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.” Yeah! That’s what produces action, results, and outcomes!

Seems like it might be a good idea for me to cultivate some moral authority, or some compassionate collaboration skills.  LOL.  Just kidding.

Why Do Some Managers Ignore Poor Performance?

This is a really good question, asked by Jill Christensen – an employee engagement expert, best-selling author, and keynote speaker – on a LinkedIn Group post. Here are the top 4 answers (in order of popularity) and some of the comments made about each:

  1. HR & senior management failure – HR is not doing its job to get poor performance on the corporate agenda and get the message to middle and senior managers. Managers fear that termination is the only solution (and finding a replacement may be difficult), so HR needs to give them ways of improving performance. Senior managers allow Managers to ignore poor performance. There isn’t enough “authentic leadership” to create a “culture” of leadership skills (eyeroll here).
  2. They don’t know how – Managers are not equipped to handle workplace conflict resolution. Managers lack lack the skills, courage, or confidence to address the issue of poor performance, and do not know how to address it properly and completely.  Managers do not have experience in how to mentor people to improve performance.
  3. Fear – Managers, like other people, dread having difficult conversations. They fear conflict, damaging relationships, and exposing themselves to the judgment of others above and below. Managers, like many others, avoid conflict.
  4. It takes work to manage performance and follow through as necessary.

After 30+ years as a management consultant, I say that answer #4 nails it for me!

All Managers know a few basics about the costs of poor performance:

  • Every individual’s performance contributes to organizational performance.
  • Ignoring low performance is a disservice to the employees who must compensate for poor performers.
  • Not handling poor performance undermines your own role as a Manager.

Managers also know it takes work to manage performance, and not just poor performance. To manage performance, a Manager must:

  1. Specify what “performance” is, in every case, with every person and team. Work with your group to define and update statements of measures and results. Specify what needs to be delivered to in-house and external users, customers, and collaborators. Get specific. Then: Make all “performance” clear to all.
  2. Make clear assignments. WHAT are the results and deliverables each person will be accountable for completing? WHEN are those results and deliverables due? WHO will be accountable for fulfilling each assignment?  WHY does each assignment matter to the group, and to the organization?  Then: Make all assignments clear to all.
  3. Follow up on a regular schedule: Update the status of performance assignments, in terms of percent completion, for example, and discuss barriers, problems, and ideas for improvements. Then: Make all performance status clear to all.

What does it mean to make all of these 3 things – [A] Performance measures, results, and deliverables; [B] Assignments for those completions; and [C] Performance status “clear to all”?  It means: Make it public (gasp!).  This is easiest if you use two indispensable elements of good management.

One, an indispensable management tool: Use a visible scoreboard or display for tracking assignment information (What-When-Who-Why).

Two, an indispensable management practice: Hold regular group “performance-update” meetings with the whole team. Those meetings are where you clarify [A] What performance is, [B] What assignment specifics will get us there, and [C] What our follow-up meeting agenda and schedule will be. Note: One-on-one discussions are insufficient for managing performance.

So, why do some Managers ignore poor performance? Because doing A-B-C, plus maintaining visual displays and facilitating performance-update meetings, is work and it takes time. And we all know that Managers are Really Busy.

Stop Managing People, Step 2. Reconsider Those 1:1 Meetings

My last post was about how to “stop managing people” by focusing on managing agreements with people instead of the people themselves. Two different worlds: people are human, and agreements are communications. You can manage the communications.

Then I talked to Markus, and he told me another way managers focus on people: One-to-One meetings, or 1:1 meetings. “Managers complain they don’t have good teamwork,” Markus said, “and then they focus on individuals by meeting with them alone, apart from their team members. Don’t they see what they’re emphasizing by doing that?”

Good point. The 1:1 meeting is necessary for hiring new people, or placing current employees into new positions within the organization. And 1:1 meetings are also useful for traditional “performance reviews”: the annual reflection on what happened and where things are going with an individual.

But 1:1 meetings are not for ongoing “performance management”. Here’s why. Hiring or re-positioning employee requires matching an organization’s skills and capabilities with the organization’s strategic and operational needs.  The 1:1 manager-to-individual meetings for hiring or re-positioning a person are likely to include discussion about the person’s skills, what kind of work they like, and where they want to go in their career and development. That’s fine: this conversation is about the person, which is personal.

But performance is a whole other idea: the root of the word “perform” is “to deliver thoroughly”. So, it’s applied to people who are already in position, who have agreements to deliver some product, service, and/or communication – and who are going about their job of delivering products, services, and communications that will satisfy those agreements. In that world, we measure performance by whether the agreement was fulfilled. It’s not about the person, it’s about delivering per agreements.

Let’s say that you’re my Manager and I have an agreement to give you a summary report every Friday morning, showing the status of my week’s sales calls: who I called on, and when; how long we talked; what results were produced in terms of dollars, service agreements, and product purchases; and what next steps we have agreed to take with a by-when for each one.

When I give you the report, you can see what I delivered this past week. Our agreement was that I would get at least 14 sales calls completed, bring in a certain dollar amount, and close three new service agreements. Did I do that?

  • If so, I delivered thoroughly – 100% performance to agreement.
  • If I did 80% of what I agreed to deliver, then my delivery-performance is 80%.
  • Or maybe it’s 150% on the dollars-produced agreement, but only 20% on product purchases.
  • Or, what if I don’t bring you that report at all? Or, what if you discover that I have misrepresented my actions and results on that report in some way?

Whatever the results, this view of performance is good information to have: where I’m a high-performer (sales dollars) and where I’m not (selling products), and whether I can be counted on to deliver on our agreed performance deliveries thoroughly. But it’s not just good for you to know, it’s good for the whole team to know. Those agreements aren’t private between you and me – they are part of our team’s work, and should be visible to all of us so we can support one another and learn how to do better.

I’ll let Markus weigh in here: “I have three teams to manage, and each one has between 6 and 10 people in it. My meetings are never 1:1, except when I have a Problem Child. I work with the group and we decide: what do we need to deliver, to whom, and when? Plus, what do we want out of doing that, and what do we need in order to make it happen? We decide as a team which of us will do what, and then we hear the results as a team. We all learn how to do better next week.”

I’m with Markus on this. Ultimately, the Manager’s job is to work with their team(s) to define the work to do next – preferably as “delivery” rather than “doing” – then ensure that good agreements are established to produce all intended results and that “delivery performance” is tracked for each of those agreements. This is more work than many managers do, but it also improves performance all around. Markus says it also saves him from costly performance “mistakes” and avoids the annoyance of his having to micro-manage things. Who doesn’t want that?

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”