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Holding People Accountable

I hear the question, in one form or another, repeated by executives in every setting:

“How do I hold people accountable for positive results?”

The more fundamental question is this: How do you, their boss, perceive your role and theirs? My experience with executives, confirmed in reliable studies is this: The number one predictor for a person’s actual performance is the expectation of that person’s boss.

If you harbor a fundamental distrust of them, or you bear more of the responsibility for them than they do for themselves, here is what you would be doing:

• You specify their goals for them
• You establish a host of check-ins and report processes
• Surreptitiously, you ask other people how the person is performing
• You accept feedback about them from others rather than steering the feedback to them directly
• You take over their responsibilities.

This begins to look like a parent who is more concerned about a child’s homework than the child is. The implied message to the child: “I’ll keep on your back because I believe you won’t do it!” So the dance of over-functioning begins, the parent protecting the child from tasting failure, the child resisting responsibility. From there it’s a downward spiral of increasing parental worry and the child’s growing inertia. Who says businesses are not like families?

This is what it looks like when there is a fundamental attitude of trust on the part of the boss and the person is responsible for her/his own performance:

• You ask them to draft their own goals
• Both parties are clear about the consequences of above-par/par/sub-par performance (“consequence” is not just a negative word!)
• You ask what support they’ll need: from you, from the company, from outside
• You ask how often they need to meet with you for coaching
• You ask if they’d be willing to mentor someone else.

Of course, you need to work with a rookie differently from a seasoned pro, but the fundamental attitude of trust and personal responsibility can and should be established even with the most inexperienced neophyte.

The question about holding them accountable redirects back to you, the boss.

• What attitudes might you need to shift in order to uphold their responsibility (e.g., the urge to control, or the demands of your own ego)?
• What work needs to be done by you or by them to specify expectations and consequences?
• How can you assume a supportive servant role vs. a policing role?
• How will you manage your own anxiety about their performance?

There is challenge enough in those questions to keep you occupied while they focus on their work!

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