When we fail to hold others accountable, we reap the consequences—some obvious, some not so obvious. Rick Lepsinger calls out the excuses too many leaders use for why they don't hold people accountable and explains how leaders can stop using them. The seven most common "Tickets to Slide"...and how leaders can stop using them.
"No one told me the project was due Friday!"
"But Bob's the team leader—it's his job to see everyone knows when priorities change."
"It's not our department's responsibility to pick up the slack when another department drops the ball."
Excuses like these echo from cubicles, C-suite offices, and factory floors throughout the land. If they're rampant at your workplace, then you have an accountability problem. And according to Rick Lepsinger, it's causing more damage than you might realize.
"Lack of accountability is a serious problem for leaders and their companies," says Lepsinger, president of OnPoint Consulting and author of Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results. "It diminishes execution and individual and team performance. It creates and reinforces a culture of blame. While everyone is busy pointing fingers, deadlines don't get met, work remains below standard, and customers stay dissatisfied.
"Plus, the accountability dodge negatively impacts your top performers," he adds. "They're often asked to clean up the messes left by poor performers, which wears them out and builds resentment. Meanwhile, their counterparts, who are less accountable and less willing to take responsibility, enjoy a lighter workload—which is, in effect, a reward for poor performance."
How big a problem is the lack of accountability in today's organizations? Lepsinger's research suggests it's a fairly substantial one. In OnPoint's survey of over 400 senior and mid-level leaders, 40 percent report that employees in their organizations are not being held accountable for results, and 20 percent report that managers in their organizations do not deal with poor performers.
"Perhaps the worst impact of not holding others accountable is that it creates a negative perception of you, the leader," says Lepsinger. "It creates the perception that you don't treat people fairly and equitably. Pretty soon others on the team get the message about 'what it takes to succeed around here' and the extent to which they can count on you as a leader."
So why don't we consistently hold people accountable for results? There are several reasons. In fact, Lepsinger believes there are seven assumptions and misunderstandings—he calls them "Tickets to Slide"—that contribute to this phenomenon.
Ticket to Slide #1
"This Too Shall Pass." The "wait and hope" syndrome assumes that poor performance will improve on its own over time. "They'll learn," we say in the (often futile) hope that we'll never actually need to have a conversation about meeting commitments and delivering results. Or, we assume that people know what they should be doing, and that this was simply a blip on the radar screen. "I'll give them the benefit of the doubt this time," we say. Problem is, "this time" often turns into "next time," followed by, "What? It happened AGAIN?"
Ticket to Slide #2
"They Know How I Feel." You just responded in your "I'm dissatisfied" voice and put on your "I'm very disappointed" face. That should do it, right? Well, maybe not.
"Most of us like to assume that sending indirect messages and subtle signals has not only made our dissatisfaction known but clarified what needs to happen differently—and how it needs to happen," says Lepsinger. "Yes, it's a highly unlikely outcome, but many of us prefer it to a more direct discussion of the problem and the need to take responsibility. Unfortunately, it seldom works."
Ticket to Slide #3
"It Will Turn into an Argument." Even if the other person is not difficult to work with, it's a safe bet that he or she will likely have a different point of view.
"Many leaders are certain that these types of uncomfortable conversations will turn into arguments," notes Lepsinger. "They rationalize that it's better to let it go and avoid the conflict. But while it may be easier in the short term to 'just let it go,' in the long run you may find that the situation has snowballed into a problem that is vastly more difficult to deal with."
Ticket to Slide #4
"I Made My Expectations Clear. (I Think...)" One reason you may avoid holding others accountable is that, actually, you have not set clear expectations. Either you haven't clarified what you want done, what "good looks like," or when you want it done. Without this base, don't be surprised when you encounter more than one point of view or when conversations turn into arguments.
"Remember: Everything you ask of your employees can be either measured or known," says Lepsinger. "Even qualitative outputs such as customer service or quality have components that we use to know when they have been done well. Those are the things for which we can set expectations and monitor and measure."
Ticket to Slide #5
"I Will Demotivate or Lose Them." One of the challenges managers face is holding top performers accountable for behavior that is consistent with work processes and organizational values.
"You may be inclined to give these 'superstars' some leeway because you feel they're too important to your team's success and you don't want to break their momentum or steal their mojo," says Lepsinger. "Unfortunately, this sets up an undesirable dynamic among the team where people come to believe that it doesn't matter how you hit the target—as long as you do, you're not accountable for other aspects of performance."
Ticket to Slide #6
"I Will Be Seen as a Micro-manager." Over the years consultants and academics have put the fear of micro-managing into the hearts of many leaders. We avoid the implication of it at all costs. In a world where a "collaborative" style is revered and a "command and control" style is frowned upon, the practice of monitoring has an undeserved bad name and has fallen out of favor.
"The truth is, the more you delegate and empower others, the more you need to monitor and track progress," says Lepsinger. "Following up and monitoring progress are not synonymous with micro-managing. Monitoring, when done well, can be a constructive activity that provides an opportunity to make course corrections and praise good performance."
Ticket to Slide #7
"It's Easier If I Just Do It Myself." Doing it yourself may seem like a good idea when you're making the call, but few myths are as wrong as this one.
"When you don't hold others accountable and you take on the work yourself, you become complicit in the cycle of poor performance and lack of accountability," explains Lepsinger. "If you do not break this negative cycle, you will always have to do it yourself because you've missed a coachable moment and an opportunity to set expectations."
Obviously, managers need to revoke these "tickets to slide"—effective immediately. But they also need to learn how to set people up for success (so they'll avoid the need to make excuses) and respond in constructive ways when something does go wrong.
"Don't expect to eliminate excuse making and lack of accountability altogether," says Lepsinger. "It's just human nature, and no manager can change that. However, you can help create a work environment that enables people to operate at a higher level of responsibility.
"Eventually, you'll see your employees taking initiative to ensure the success of projects, providing early warning of potential problems, and taking action to resolve problems, even if it is not their fault," he adds. "And that's the ideal place for your team to be—where accountability and initiative are synonymous."
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Before and After the Fact: How to Boost Accountability at Your Organization
Excerpted from Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, June 2010, ISBN: 978-0-4705313-0-3, $45.00, www.onpointconsultingllc.com), by Rick Lepsinger
Got an accountability problem at your organization? There are two main ways to tackle it. First, you need to forestall excuse-generating problems upfront by creating conditions that make it more likely people will follow through. Second, you need to help and encourage people to take responsibility after mistakes have already been made—without making them feel worse than they already do.
Here, excerpted from Rick Lepsinger's Closing the Execution Gap, are a few before and after accountability boosting suggestions to help keep you, your team, and your projects on track:
Before-the-Fact Accountability Booster: Set People Up for Success
The best way to manage accountability is to ensure that people follow through in the first place. Three techniques can help you dramatically increase the chances that people will follow through and keep their commitments: 1) clarifying actions and expectations, 2) agreeing on due dates for deliverables, and 3) establishing checkpoints. The acronym ATC can help you remember the techniques.
This is the starting point for both setting people up for success and being able to hold them accountable after the fact, so it is critical to get it right. This is where you clarify expectations (what "good looks like") and identify who is accountable for which parts of the work. Regardless of how good an idea someone has or how sincere his intentions, nothing happens until someone commits to taking some action to produce a specific deliverable.
Just as important as clarifying actions and expectations, establishing an agreed upon due date is critical to ensuring everyone is on the same page. Due dates like "as soon as possible" and "by next week" lay the foundation for misunderstandings, because your "as soon as possible" may not be anywhere near theirs. (Does "by next week" mean before next week? Does it mean Monday of next week or Friday of next week?) In addition, commitments that don't have a time frame frequently do not get attention and usually fall by the wayside.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting to check in until the action or deliverable is due. Although the pitfall seems obvious—waiting until the due date to check in does not leave time for problem solving—it is surprising how many people stumble into it. One explanation leaders offer for this self-defeating behavior is that they're afraid of communicating a lack of trust in the other person's ability—or of being labeled a micro-manager.
The simple, yet powerful, solution is to establish periodic progress checkpoints before the due date. The frequency of the checkpoints will depend on the difficulty of the task and the experience of the person. This technique simultaneously solves both problems: the implied lack of trust and the micro-managing.
Agreeing on checkpoints with the other person makes follow-up and progress checks a shared and mutually endorsed activity. The check-ins are now part of project management, and they also provide opportunities for you to coach if there is a problem and recognize and reinforce behavior when things are going well.
In addition, because you've outlined the milestones you are comfortable with and built in time to get things back on track if you discover there is a problem, you don't have to give in to the temptation to make spontaneous or surprise visits or to call when you get nervous about whether the project is on track.
After-the-Fact Accountability Booster: Three Accountability Questions
Sure, prevention is better than an after-the-fact remedy. But in the real world, people will drop the ball from time to time. Rather than berating a person for her failure to deliver results, reinforce her accountability and focus on problem solving.
Three questions will encourage the person to think about how she contributed to the current situation, what she can do to get things back on track, and what she can do to prevent it from happening again. In addition to asking these questions directly yourself (which might come across as accusatory), you should coach the person to pose them to herself as a way to manage her own accountability. The three questions are:
• Present: "What can I do now to get on track?"
• Future: "What can I do to prevent this problem from happening again in the future?"
• Past: "What could I have done to prevent the problem? What, if anything, did I do that might have possibly contributed to the problem?"
The first two questions are less likely to evoke a defensive response, but the third one might very well push that button. Be prepared to deal with defensive behaviors. One way to do so is to show empathy. Try something like: "I know you're as concerned as I am about this and I realize it's not the way you wanted things to turn out. This conversation is not about assigning blame. It's about solving the problem and ensuring that we keep it from happening again."