In most organisations that I have consulted to the organisational design does not enable accountability of individuals as an inbuilt design element. I have learned over the years that when you design a culture you can actually prevent an estimated 30% loss in real productive work that occurs when people need to be managed. A thoughtfully designed culture removes most layers of management. I find it fascinating that organisations will cut budgets in other areas, yet see that people ‘need’ managing as a norm.

As my colleague, Michel Bauwens quoted, “Management is only required when you do not have motivated people.”

The example below demonstrates the level of clarity required to deliver clear messages, speak with authority (not power over) and move away from a culture of blame, passing the buck, and expecting some mythical ‘other’ to fix the problem.

I consider this human behaviour of blame/lack of accountability/conflict avoidance a social pandemic, and a serious contributing factor to many of our social and environmental ills. However, it is largely a systems error, a design fault, easily corrected.

When we are teaching message delivery to clients the most critical point we make is the importance of the answer to the following question.

“If I deliver a request to person Z for task A to be completed, who is responsible for getting the task completed?”

Most of the time we tend to blame the staff.(Person Z in the above question.) It is their fault. They are lazy. Incompetent, don’t listen, complain, sabotage.

It is easy to blame others.

I propose that the requester is equally at fault. They need to take responsibility for not being clear enough, or assertive or addressing the issues in a clean and clear way.

Communication to your team means holding people to account, being precise, clear, respectful, building trust and safety.

Let me give you an example. I am going to use an extreme case. (Many people are very reliable, and often we have built a very functional and responsive relationship with them, so this level of drilling down is not required. However, for those exceptions the detail below is required.)

Person A = the requester

Person B = the person designated to carry out the request.

In this illustration, this person typically doesn’t listen to instructions well or has a bad habit of saying yes when they mean no or does almost anything to avoid conflict. Hence the level of granularity we demonstrate in this conversation. It might appear patronising, yet this is the ‘special’ case for difficult situations, or for communication where detail can be life or system threatening when we do not get it right.

Person A. “Please write this down.”

(Pause while person B gets paper and pen)

“I need task DCF completed by Tuesday next week. I would like Dan and Paul involved. I also want it to have elements 1, 2, 3.”

“Is there anything about this request that you are not clear on?”

Person B. “No”

Person A. “Are you sure?”

Person B. “Yes”

Person A. “Please repeat to me what you think I am expecting from you.”

Person B. “You want me to get DCF done by Tuesday. You want me to bring in Dan and Paul, and also include 1,2,3”

Person A. “Yes, that’s what I want, thank you.”

“Now, I know you have had trouble with D and C in the past. How do you feel about completing this now?” (Person A is speaking from personal experience, and is addressing specific issues that have not been done well in the past.)

Person B. “I don’t have a problem with this.”

Person A. “Are you sure? You are saying that this will not be an issue at all?” (Look them direct in the eye when you are asking this.)

Person B. “I am sure.”

Person A. “OK. I have your word on that.” (Looking them in the eye as they nod.)

“What will you do if you have an issue or problem with any part of this process?”

Person B. “Oh, I will sort it out.”

Person A. “How, specifically?”

Person B. “Oh, I will probably go to Dan.”

Person A. “And if that doesn’t work?”

Person B. “Then we might need to come to you.”

Person A. “When would you come to me?”

Person B. (Stalls on this one. They usually hate admitting they need help) “Oh, I don’t know?”

Person A. “When will be the best time to come to me if there is an issue that cannot be resolved?”

Person B. “I guess when we know there is an issue.”

Person A. “I would like you to come to me as soon as you know you have an issue that cannot be resolved. Is that understood?” (Looking them direct in the eyes.)

Person B. “Yes.”

Person A. “Ok then.”

“So is there anything else that may get in the way of this project being completed on time?”

Person B. “No.”

Person A. “Are you sure? You are not going to have issues with Mary, or your health or..?” (Name the issues that this person usually brings to the table as an excuse.)

Person B. “No.”

Person A. “Ok, so we have established that you will do X if there is a problem and that you will not have any issues with your …?” (Looking them in the eye, get their response.)

Person B. “Yes.”

Person A. “Good.”

“Now, do you understand the implications of not having this be done by Tuesday?”

Person B. “No…what do you mean?”

Person A. “Well, who do you think is relying on this project being complete by Tuesday?”

Person B. “I don’t know. Maybe Paul’s team?” (Person B rarely think about the consequences of his actions.)

Person A. “Yes, Paul’s team. Anyone else?”

Person B. “Not that I can think of.”

Person A. “Have you considered the marketing people? What about the sales team? How are these people likely to be affected if this is not done on time?”

Person B. “Well, I guess they won’t be able to get started on their work?”

Person A. “Yep, you got it. They rely on us getting this complete by Tuesday. So do you understand that if we do not do this by Tuesday, there will be significant consequences that will affect many more people?”

Person B. “Yes.”

Person A. “Good. Before we wrap this conversation I want to be sure that there is nothing about this project that is causing you to be upset? I know you do not agree with our line of thinking on this. But as we discussed at our team meeting last week, this is the direction we have decided to take, I am responsible for that choice, I will take full responsibility if I have made the wrong decisions. Is there anything further that you need to say to me to clear this up so we can all get on with this and do a great job, even though you think we should be doing it differently?” (Address the major point of disagreement head-on, give them space to speak, and then challenge them to drop it.)

Person B. “No.”

Person A. “You are sure?”

Person B. “Yes.”

Person A. “So by that, you mean that I will not hear that you are bad mouthing this project to others? At all?” (Look them in the eye as you ask them this.)

Person B. “No.”

Person A. “Great.”

“So, I can expect you to get this project delivered on time, as we described (go through it again, in summary), that if there is an issue you will do X, that you will bring your positive attitude and that there will be no bad-mouthing this project at work? That we have your full co-operation, participation and accountability for this? And that the people who are relying on you to get this done on time, have nothing to worry about. You will do it on time and well?” (Look them in the eye as you ask them this. You want them to commit to this.)

Person B. “Yes.”

Person A. “Great. Please send me an email summarizing this conversation in bullet points by close of business today.” (Only request this if we have a serious problem with accountability.)

“Thanks for your time and attention to this.”

Person A then needs to check-in at least once prior to the deadline. Often they will need to go through this whole process again, bringing a level of rigour to the accountability.

The intention behind this level of clarity of request is to cover all possible breakdown points during the request. It is time-consuming, however, it will save you time in the long run. You are putting a stop to all the dysfunctional behaviour when people do their best to avoid taking responsibility.

You need to be sure you have left no stone unturned. You need to be very precise and aligned with your communication.

Ideally, you mostly ask questions so that they elicit the answers. In doing this we are teaching responsibility.

When people are first asked to step up to a level of accountability, you may meet initial resistance. Therefore it is essential that your message is very clear.

When you consistently deliver this level of clarity and precision your team will do one of two things.

*leave because they prefer playing at a lower level of responsibility

*enjoy their job and the work environment more than previously

We find that people do enjoy their work more when they feel a level of ownership. Their self-esteem goes up as they begin to feel valued as a contributing asset to the business.

Ultimately this level of rigour around your communication as a leader will save you time and energy. You will have fewer fires to fight, and more time to dedicate to the work that you were employed to do. Building accountability at work will save you and your organisation time and money.

Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash
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