Holding People Accountable Is Not Mean – It's A Favor

“According to statistics, there are 7 million Americans not working–and even more if you count those with jobs.”

I got a laugh out of Bob Orben’s comment above. Unfortunately, there’s some truth in it. Some people at work just aren’t working out. And I’ll bet you know a few of them.

They need to be held accountable. That’s what the New York Yankees’ Manager Casey Stengel learned. Baseball announcer Chuck Thompson told it this way.

“One night some media people and I were listening to Casey tell stories until the bar closed early in the morning. We all left to go to our rooms, and as we approached the elevator, the operator was standing there.”

Thompson said Casey pulled a baseball out of his pocket and told the operator, “I got to give this ball to a kid tomorrow. Do me a favor. If any of the guys come in, get them to sign the ball and give it to me at breakfast, will you?”

“The elevator operator agreed. The next morning, Stengel was first at breakfast, and the elevator man handed him the ball. It had four or five signatures of Yankee players who had come in late that night. Stengel took the ball, thanked the fellow, and promptly fined all the players who’d signed the ball $50 for breaking curfew.”

Stengel held his players accountable. And you need to hold your employees, team members, students, and even your spouse and kids accountable. To let them “get by” with something is just about the worst thing you can do. You let them know that you don’t expect too much out of them — because they couldn’t do too much anyway.

Of course some people think it’s “mean” if they hold people accountable. So they avoid honesty and confrontation. They “move” non-productive employees to another department — instead of dealing with them. They “promote” students to grades they haven’t earned. And they “excuse” their kids’ misbehavior instead of taking the time to correct it.

But let’s get real. Growth and success are almost always preceded by accountability. It’s not “mean.” It’s one of the most caring things you can do — to hold people accountable. You help them be their best.

Of course, you may be thinking you don’t have time to hold “everyone” at work and home accountable. You’re right. You don’t have to hold “everyone” accountable. In your organization, for example, 95% of your people probably care, and they probably do a “good” job. It’s the other 5% — who don’t care — that cause 95% of your problems — and take most of your time. They need the extra help your accountability can give them.

Here’s what I suggest.

=> 1. Be Hard On The Problem, Soft On The Person.

In other words, when you hold someone accountable, he needs to know that you care about him as a person. In fact, that’s the very reason you’re confronting him.

H. Jackson Brown wrote a book entitled, “Life’s Little Instruction Book.” He gave similar advice. He said, “Be tough-minded but tender-hearted.” Come down on the problem while you lift up the person.

=> 2. Give Appropriate Responsibility.

If you’re an “effective” parent, you know there’s a fine line between too much freedom and too many restrictions. You’re constantly trying to figure out how much responsibility you can give the kids so they grow up to be responsible.

If you’re an “ineffective” parent, you may not “get it.” You may think kids are only young once, so let them enjoy it. You don’t want to burden them with expectations and responsibility.

A lot of American parents fall into this category. When American parents are surveyed, when they’re asked what they want their kids to be, the vast majority say, “I just want my kids to be happy.” Asian parents, by contrast, say they want their kids to be “successful.”

I think Abigail Van Buren of “Dear Abby” fame said it best. She said, “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.”

The same principle applies to people at work. If you don’t give your workers enough responsibility, they become irresponsible. But when you give your people more and more responsibility, as appropriate, as they’re able to handle it, you bring out their “Peak Performance.” In fact the entire second day of my PEAK PERFORMANCE BOOT CAMP focuses on the very issue of how you bring out the best in people.

Those are the first two guiding principles in holding people accountable. But if you’re looking for a specific process, try these steps.

=> 3. Ask The Other Person To Write Down Your Instructions.

When you give someone a task, ask her to write it down. And if she is on the phone, ask her to read back what she’s written. It’s a simple way to make sure she got it and understands what you want. And it prevents all those petty arguments of “You never told me…” and “I didn’t know…”

=> 4. Assign Due Dates.

Tasks without deadlines never seem to get done. But a due date creates a sense of urgency and says, “This is important.”

=> 5. Get A Verbal Commitment.

Ask the other person if he will do the task you are assigning. Get a clear “Yes” or “No.” Follow-through increases about ten-fold once a person says “Yes.”

If the other person says “No,” ask him what it will take for him to complete the task. Perhaps he needs some extra training or motivation. Ask him again, if you provide the “stuff” he needs, will he commit himself to the task. Almost always you’ll get a “Yes” response.

=> 6. Check In Early.

Even people with the best of intentions can screw up. So build in a little cushion of time when you’re holding someone accountable. Tell the other person you need something by Wednesday — even though the following Monday would work for you.

Then call the person on Tuesday to see how she’s doing. If she’s forgotten her commitment, your call will serve as a gentle reminder to get going. And if she’s having some difficulty, you have some time to intervene and help if necessary.

=> 7. Follow Up Later.

Don’t confuse delegation, accountability, and completion. Just because you delegated a task to someone, and just because someone committed himself to doing it, doesn’t mean that it’s done. You can’t assign something and forget about it.

You’ve got to follow up on how things are going — especially if it’s a longer range project. Otherwise you’ll wake up at 3:00 a.m. with the gut-wrenching realization you never got the report you were expecting last week.

Action:  Do you hold people accountable? Or do you let them “get by” with less than peak performance? Be honest with yourself.

If you need to get better at holding people accountable, pick one person to “practice” on. Use steps 3 through 7 on that person for a specific task coming up in the near future.