As children, our parents used many schemes to get us to do what they wanted us to do. Remember the old adage, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you? I’m not referring to physical punishment, but more the battle of wills. If you’ve ever disciplined a two-year old, you know exactly what I mean. It is virtually impossible for an adult to get what they want by going toe to toe with a 2 year old. Instead, it takes a mature brain, finesse, and a whole lot of patience. It also takes discipline, but in this article I’m not talking about the discipline of the child.
Fast forward to the workplace. Everybody in a work environment is faced with the need to hold their subordinates, themselves and their co-workers accountable. It is easier to envision the need for accountability in the direct report/supervisory relationship, but accountability is also necessary in peer groups and of bosses as well as in subordinate relationships. In this article I will focus on the employer/employee relationship as it relates to accountability.
So, where to begin on the path to accountability? One way is to start with what we learned in parenting roles, of course! I remember early in my career when I had a flash of insight about how difficult parenting really is and how the skills I was learning translated into my supervisory roles. That’s when the old adage I mentioned above returned in a slightly different form – This is going to take a lot more discipline on my part than it will on yours (the subordinate’s part).
Accountability is really a simple matter, in theory. It involves understanding what needs to happen and by whom, communicating it to them and then disciplining yourself to get the job done. Really simple, right?
Let’s start with communication – does your direct report know exactly what is expected of him/her? Can they articulate it to you? If they cannot, there can be no accountability. However, once there is an understanding of expectations, the accountability process can begin. Regular communication between the two of you is critical to this process. By this, I mean one-on-one quality time that reflects the investment you are making in your people. I recommend having these conversations monthly.
This communication process, designed to increase accountability, can trip you up in many ways. The reason – because we mature adults like to get our way, just like we did with the 2 year old. But very different skills are needed if you plan to help someone in your employ develop professionally and meet your expectations. One of these skills is learning how to structure the monthly conversation. One technique is to ask good questions. This approach will yield far more insight into what’s really going on with your employee than a conversation where you do all the talking. If you’re looking for guidance on how to have an open question dialogue, try reading ‘Fierce Conversations’ by Susan Scott.
So now you’ve communicated your expectations and your employee clearly understands and can articulate their importance to you. You’ve been in regular talks where you’re asking good questions, uncovering obstacles and helping the employee figure out what needs to be done. Inevitably, the day will come when that employee shows up at your office door, struggling with a task that you can easily complete in far less time. Do you do it? I love this quote from David Maister, author of True Professionalism, ‘beware of the problem in search of an owner. When confronted with a difficult situation, ask yourself, whose problem is this? Remember which direction delegation flows’. In other words, give out the answer with caution or the problem may end up back on your desk.
Solving problems for our people (including our children) is unbelievably tempting. If we do provide the solution, it will always get in the way of delegation and will serve to derail all of the investments we’ve made in the development of our people thus far. It can take significant discipline to ‘sit on your hands’ and not give out that answer and it must be done in order to master the ability to hold others’ accountable.
In conclusion and back to that old adage – the act of being disciplined in holding your people accountable to doing their job will likely hurt you more than it hurts them!
About: McLean, Koehler, Sparks & Hammond (MKS&H) is a professional service firm with offices in Hunt Valley and Frederick. MKS&H helps owners and organizational leaders become more successful by putting complex financial data into truly meaningful context. But deeper than dollars and data, our focus is on developing an understanding of you, your culture and your business goals. This approach enables our clients to achieve their greatest potential.