Accountability is Not Authority

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”.

“They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem. Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. I asked him how he would know if his people were being accountable, he said, “They would report their results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. He didn’t specify exactly which results they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does Howard expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires clear requests and promises to produce results. And it requires follow-up: Howard will need to identify which results he wants each person to report on, and schedule a time for that to happen. Without a clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. Without a specific date and time to report on those results, there is no accountability.

“You have to set it up,” I explained, “so you can get the feedback you want about what is actually being produced. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report. It’s your job to create the framework for that to happen.”

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.”

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, even though that’s just a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. Authority will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted, “They should know their jobs”. He refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting. He even rejected the idea of having his employees create and update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.

Workplace Communication & Resistance to Change

The program last week was based on the responses of a 50+ person group that took our Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on The #1 issue for managers – and #2 for staff – sounded familiar.  They all agreed on this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

This complaint is often associated with workforce discouragement, where managers and staff no longer even try to do anything about gaining a say in a change proposal. Then we hear the popular criticism of “Change for the sake of change”, and everyone rolls their eyes when they hear another one coming. What to do?

  1. Initiative conversation. When introducing a change, link it to a mission, goal, or objective. Every change needs a context that is clearly stated and easy to recognize as something important and worthwhile.
  2. Understanding conversations. Schedule one or more dialogue meetings with the people whose work will be affected by the change and the people who will be implementing the change. NOTE: That’s a dialogue, not an announcement or a speech. The people whose work will be affected will tell you why the change will never work. That’s exactly what you want! Here’s how to conduct those dialogues:
    1. Write down each specific reason for “Why It Won’t Work” on a whiteboard or a computer screen that everyone in each dialogue can see.
    2. Keep adding to the list with every dialogue, and letting everyone see the growing list. Encourage them to make revisions, clarify the items, and add to the list.
    3. After everyone has weighed in, send out the finished list and ask people to rank the items from 10 – “The Real Reason It Won’t Work”, down to 1 – “A Possible But Unlikely Reason It Won’t Work”.
    4. Post the new rankings of “Reasons It Will Never Work” in a place where everyone can see it, along with this question: “If we work together to handle each of these items, can we make this change work?”
  3. Performance conversations. Make a request to everyone who participated in the “Why It Won’t Work” dialogues. Ask, “Who is willing to take on some of the tasks of either implementing the change or resolving those barriers on the list?” Make agreements with those who are willing to come on board, and don’t be mad at the others who are holding back for a while longer.
  4. Closure conversations. Start having regular “Change Implementation” meetings to review the necessary tasks, assignments, and agreements with other groups to make the change happen. Check things off task and barrier lists, say Thank You a lot, and keep your list of assignments, deliverables, and agreements up to date. Then go back to Step 1 and re-introduce the change; Step 2 to talk about what needs attention now that things are underway; and Step 3, inviting others to step in to adopting a task or process.

We humans are so funny. We want to keep things the same. And we want to be part of changing things. Resistance is fun – and so is the game of making things work. Help people join the game.