When You Need People to Do What You Say, Use Accountability!

If the people you work with are human, they probably don’t always follow your instructions…  and that can lead to a follow-up conversation (or confrontation) that many of us find awkward.

Never fear, though: You can avoid feeling like the bad guy or having to listen to lame excuses if you build accountability in, from the start.

Here’s how to do that. (Hot tip: this approach works great with family members, too!)

First, Tell People What To Do!

Many people — even highly talented managers — don’t like giving orders.

This can be a real problem, but the solution is not to “disguise” what you’re doing by sort of, kind of giving instructions that sound vague (“It would be good if you could finish this report soon”) or guilt-ridden (“Listen, I really hate to bother you with this, but if you don’t mind, could you finish the report soon?”).

A wishy-washy style of giving directions causes more problems than it solves, and in fact, can put your direct reports (the people you supervise) at risk, since they’re left to guess what you really want from them.

So if you don’t like being AN AUTHORITY FIGURE, soften the impact of your words with a smile, a “please,” a “thank you,” or a few words of appreciation — but don’t let your instructions sound like mush!

When You Give an Assignment, Be VERY Specific!

I coach at a Manhattan PR firm, and in that fast-paced industry, junior people report sometimes getting assignments like:

Let me know how many media hits our client got.”

Sounds reasonable on the surface, right?

But the person who receives this instruction probably won’t get it right the first time, because they don’t know (and may not know to ask) things like:

  • What process do you want me to follow?
  • What period of time do you want me to cover?
  • How many media markets should I include?
  • Do you want all media, or just certain kinds?
  • How do you want me to output what I learn? (a report? a chart? an executive summary?), and
  • How and when do you want that output delivered?

To avoid having to explain all this after someone has done it wrong, give them as much detail as possible the first time. You might say,

Please find out how many hits our client got on all media channels, over the past 10 days, in the top 10 markets. Put the info in a spreadsheet, and email it to me by 5pm today. This should only take two hours, and if it’s taking longer or you have any questions, come to my office and tell me right away.”

Then, segue directly into the next step for accountability:

Get the Other Person to Agree that They Will Do What You Want

To get explicit agreement (and confirm that you’re both on the same page), add a check-in at the end of your explanation. You can say,

…if it’s taking longer or you have any questions, come to my office and tell me right away.

Is all of that clear?”

Look the other person right in the eye and let them state “yes, it’s clear,” or at least give a very unambiguous nod. (And if what you’re asking for isn’t clear to them, keep trying until it is!)

Then say,

Will you let me know if you hit any snags?”

Again, look the other person right in the eye and let them state “yes, I will” (or at least give a very unambiguous nod!)

If you want to be really thorough, you could also say,

And if you’re not going to make the 5 o’clock deadline, I want you to tell me as soon as you know; certainly no later than 4:30pm.”

Once more, look the other person right in the eye and let them state “OK” (or at least give a very unambiguous nod!)

Now they’re ready to go to work — and you have an accountability agreement that will come in handy if things go wrong.

Use Their Agreement to Enforce Accountability

At this point, things are pretty simple:

  • Your colleague or direct report knows exactly what you expect,
  • They’ve agreed to meet your expectation, and
  • If they can’t do so, for any reason, you’ve asked for immediate notice.

If that doesn’t happen — if 5:07 PM rolls around and there’s no spreadsheet in your email in-box, all you have to do is reference the agreement, as in,

Hey, what’s up? I thought you were going to tell me if you couldn’t get the info by 5.”

Notice that this is a statement of fact. It’s not blaming, it’s not denigrating, it’s just pointing out that the other person agreed to let you know about snags.

The same approach is useful if your inbox pings at 4:59 and what’s there is not the spreadsheet you asked for but a few jumbled facts from the last two days. At that point, you can say,

We agreed that you would get me data from the past 10 days, from the top 10 markets. That isn’t what you’ve given me.”

If you then get an excuse (“Yes, but I couldn’t figure our how to…”), you can say,

We agreed that you would let me know right away if you hit a problem. That isn’t what happened.”

At this point, you might close by saying,

I’d like to help you do what you agreed to. What’s your plan for getting this done?”

Want More Accountability in Your Life? Use This Checklist!

If you like the sound of this system, it isn’t hard to implement; just check off the following questions:

 Is it clear that I’m giving instructions, not just wishing for something to happen?

 Am I giving as much detail as possible, including the deadline, the deliverable, and what to do if things get stalled?

 Has the other person explicitly agreed to what I’m asking?

√  If things go wrong, rather than blaming, am I calmly pointing out how what we agreed to and what happened differ?

That’s all there is to it!

Enjoy accountability, and its accompanying results, like better work, fewer headaches, and smoother sailing!

Image by rawpixel.com/Unsplash
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