While working on a project recently with a new team, I began receiving curious comments of appreciation. Not that the appreciation was necessarily curious (though some may be surprised) but the cause of the appreciation was somewhat intriguing to me. They were thanking me for keeping them “on track” and reminding them of deadlines (whether upcoming or missed.) Essentially, I was holding them accountable, and they appreciated it.
This seemed contrary to the “do not micromanage” theory until I started to think more about it. I was not telling them HOW they needed to meet their deadlines, merely that deadlines needed to be met. Additionally, I was not reprimanding them for missing them. If their tasks did not come in, I asked if perhaps, in my error, I had not seen them submitted. When the reply came that, no, they just hadn’t gotten their task complete yet, I asked when I could expect it, and offered help. Even when the task came in a day or two late, I thanked them for their attention to the project. I then (and I think this was the key) asked that in the future, if they feared they may miss a deadline, they tell me at least two days ahead of time so I could rearrange things and perhaps provide assistance. That happened twice. And then, a miraculous thing happened. Nothing was late after that.
I never stood over their shoulders, nor asked them WHY they had not met their deadlines. I never punished them, nor did I ever step in. In fact, only once was I even asked to help. The other time a deadline was at risk, they proposed a different allocation of resources that both allowed the deadline to be met and provided a challenge another team member had been asking for. Then is when the curious feedback started. “Thanks for keeping us honest and on track.” At first I did not quite know how to react, “uh, you’re welcome.” I started thinking and wondered, is keeping people accountable the same as giving feedback?
And I suppose it is. After all, when you tell someone they are missing deadlines and that is not okay, that is feedback, isn’t it? Beyond that, when people would offer reasons why they were about to miss (or had missed) a deadline I simply said “I understand AND how do you propose we work to get the deadlines met [next time] (if appropriate).” They never spiraled into excuses and if they had, I would have simply let them spiral, used the same response and moved on. After all, it does not matter WHY the deadline is missed, none of the reasoning in the world will make that change. My focus was always on how do we get the results we want, not how do we prevent (or analyze) the results we don’t.
Providing accountability does not have to be punitive. People want to meet expectations. If they have lived so long letting deadline eclipse with no recourse, no feedback, and no accountability, then are there really any expectations? And how demotivating is it for others to have no expectations of you (or of yourself for that matter.) People just coast on cruise control. If you want people to start stepping on the gas at the right times, you have to provide accountability so they know what is expected. It goes back to the basics of management – give people clear expectations and provide feedback. Perhaps accountability CAN be synonymous with feedback if you focus on the solution and not the cause.