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Extracting the Promise of Accountability
Leaders too often assume that in handing off work, team members understand that they are now accountable. Instead of asking for — and confirming — a promise, leaders commonly assign projects and outcomes without making sure team members know they are answerable for the results. A promise implied is not a promise given.
Good leaders ask for a pledge to deliver: “Can I count on you to bring this project to completion on time and within budget?” Asking for a promise requires a committed response. “I need you to master this skill. Are you willing to see it through?” The question begs for a committed reply.
When team members and colleagues give their word, accountability takes on a whole new meaning. Doing so clearly and without reservation means signing up to be responsible for the results. Asking others to explicitly agree to the promise prevents the wishy-washy answers that point to an escape hatch.
Be on the lookout for responses that fall short of a commitment to fulfill the promise. “I’ll do my best,”is a forewarning that a team member is likely not keep the promise. Replies like, “Shouldn’t be a problem,” “Let me see what I can do,” and, “I think I can make this work,” should seriously scare a leader. Translated, they mean that the other person is not accountable.
When leaders ask others to confirm a promise, everyone knows what is expected. The only acceptable reply to the question, “Will you lead the project to a successful outcome?” is yes. Anything less becomes a negotiation, where team members search for a way out. Good leaders would rather hear a no, a “Not by that date,” or “I can only promise to deliver the first part,” than a tepid answer that indicates the avoidance of accountability.
It's time to stop assuming who we think or suspect will be accountable and to make the request unequivocally. Leaders have an edge in any negotiation. The best people don’t make promises they can’t, or won’t, keep. The commitment to deliver should never be presumed. Good leaders ask for it. The accountability conversation is the cement that binds commitment to results. Anything less is a crapshoot.