Leading Accountability – What Do You Want

Bill took our conversation to heart and connected with Cindi to verify what she thought he wanted from her…his expectations and this is what he reported.

“Bill, what happened with Cindi?” I asked.

“She was actually grateful that I asked her what she thought she should be doing. And her description of what I expected from her was so different from the one I think I shared that I wondered if we were in the same room together when I shared my expectations 8 months ago. I mean, she did get the general idea, the big picture. But she was really way off when it came to the kind of things I wanted her to focus on. I had asked her to work on her own while she coordinated with three other people on the new product technical catalogue. She did keep them in the loop about what she was doing but she did not coordinate with them.”

“Bill, what did you have in your mind when you used the word ‘coordinate’?”

“Yes, by coordinate I meant that she should work with the new product developers and packaging people to make sure any changes that they made in their parts of the project were included in the catalogue she was creating before we published the thing.”

“Did Cindi understand that this is what you meant by coordination?”

“I guess not,” Bill replied. “She didn’t do it. And they didn’t do it either because they thought it was her job to follow up.”

“Bill, what have you learned from this set of events?”

“I think some people don’t listen very well and others don’t say what they want with the necessary detail to make it understandable. I just assumed that Cindi understood what I meant by coordinate and that got me in trouble.” Bill was quiet for a moment. “I guess it all started with me failing to tell Cindi in a clear and comprehensive way, what I wanted. You know, I have done this with people who know and have worked with me in the past and we understand each other in the right context. But Cindi is new to our business and team so I should have taken the time to get into the details.”

“Bill, at least 60% of the challenges I coach people on have to do with some breakdown in communication around expectations or what people want. Telling people what you want is critical to the success of any relationship. People fail to say what they want, they don’t say it clearly, and they don’t ask questions to verify that the other person has heard them in the way they intend.”

“How do you do that, Steve. I mean without insulting someone. Verify, that is.”

“One way you can varify Bill, is to ask for it. For example, you could have said to Cindi, ‘You know Cindi, communications and perceptions of what those communications mean can get really screwed up. I used the word coordination in one way and you may interpret it in another. So I want to varify that I communicated in the way I intended. Please tell me what you heard and understood from our conversation.’ Or you can ask the person to send you an email outlining what you have agreed to in the conversation. Ask for details. Or you can put it in writing and ask them to verify it and they can ask for clarification.”

“Bill, if you want to set up accountability, everything starts with the wants. What do I want? What do you want? What do we want? What does the organization want? Wants are the vision, the goals, the results. What are we aiming for? Clear expectations are clear wants. If people don’t know what we want we probably won’t get what we expect.”

“Steve, I guess Cindi’s failure so far had a great deal to do with what I failed to do,” Bill said.

“I don’t like to think of accountability as being about blame. If you want to go in that direction we will waste a lot of time. And everyone who was involved played a part in Cindi’s temporary side track. Does she know what is expected of her now and has she acted on it, Bill?”

“She agreed to take action and she asked a lot of questions to get clear because she really seems committed. And there is still some time to meet the deadline on the catalogue.”

“Bill, lets deepen this conversation next time because there is much to learn here about accountability in just this one example.”

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Leading Accountability – Perception

We define accountability as owning the consequences of your choices in delivering the agreed to results and helping others do the same. I dont think it is any easier to be accountable then it is to be green….like Kermit the Frog…not green like ecology. Most people think of accountability as blaming and telling people what they did wrong, at least that is the way we proactively apply it. The other day I was helping a client, will call him Bill, work with a direct report, Cindi. Cindi was not delivering what was needed from her position. Bill wanted to know what to do. I asked Bill if he had shared what he wanted from Cindi and said yes.

“How long ago BIll”, I asked.

“Oh, about 8 months ago.”

“Have you done anything to revist your expectations since then?”

“Umm, not really,” Bill replied.

“How long has this been going on, Cindi’s failure to deliver, Bill?”

“Oh, about 7 months.”

“Because you’ve told Cindi once upon a time (about 8 months ago) what you expect from her, it does not mean it sunk in. It also does not mean she understood exactly what you meant when you referred to her duties and expected results. Even if she shook her head to signify yes. Only when you ask questions that verify someone truly got what you wanted them to receive can you be partially assured that they understood the words you used exactly the way you meant them. And I mean partially because you really don’t know they understood until they actually do and deliver the things you wanted them to do and deliver. At least twice or three times. You see, perception, which includes listening to what the boss says, is a flakey thing. Our abilities to hear, see, taste, touch, smell and see our own thoughts are not all equal, optimized and oriented in the same way. A lawyer senses the world around her from a lawyer’s point of view. A cook senses the world relying more on smell, taste and texture as well as how it looks. Our past experiences tilt our thinking in ways that are different from everyone else in the world because no two people have exactly the same experiences. And our values are different too. All of these factors orient our perceptions in different ways. We all look at the world through our own filters.”

So Cindi may not interpret what Bill says in the same way that Bill means. He has to be sure. Bill is accountable for verifying what Cindi understands and if she does not seem to understand then Bill has to take action to improve the communication and get in Cindi’s world so he can get her to deliver the agreed to results.

In considering accountability, perception is important. Bill’s perception has to change about accountability because he is the one who has to take the first step in supporting Cindi’s success before she can be successful. This is not to imply that Cindi is off the hook here. If she has been failing for 7 or 8 months then she could be taking action to change and deliver. This story is not over so come back for my next blog post to learn more. And what’s your perception of this situation?

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