You've got a coworker who promised to get you important information - information you need to do your job - by Tuesday. It's now Wednesday and he's failed to follow through. What do you do?
Recently I've had two companies come to me, pleading to help them increase accountability in their organization. They've read the research and know that if they could just create a little more accountability, they will be able to take their teams to a higher level of performance, but they just don't know how to go about doing this. More importantly, however, they believe that if they could get this accountability piece figured out, they would be able to stop the back-channel bickering and complaining that is creating the foundation of a toxic work environment.
First and foremost, if you are to create a culture of accountability, you've got to be crystal clear on what you will be holding people accountable to. That is, if you simply assume that they will get the report to you, or you assume that someone will step up and clean the floor, or you assume that everyone was clear about the commitments made in the last team meeting, you'll surely end up frustrated. Here's a classic story that explains what I mean:
This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.
If meeting in a one on one, have the person repeat back to you what they think the next steps are. If you are asking someone to take on a responsibility, provide a written explanation detailing their role. If you are leaving a team meeting, reserve the last 5 minute to review all the tasks and the specific individual that will be completing the task. Without clear communication, people won't understand what is expected and you'll have a very hard time holding them accountable.
But let's say you were clear, like in the example at the start of this post. That is, your coworker knew exactly what was needed and when it was needed, but he still let you down. Now what?
The way I see it, you've got three options.
Option 1 - Do nothing. Yup, there it is. You can pretend as though it didn't happen, ignore the let down and move one. The problem is that doing nothing really is not doing nothing. You see, you'll probably start to make a number of judgments about your coworker, complaining first to yourself and then to others about how irresponsible the person is, how he can't be counted upon when it really counts, and how he is probably out to get you and take that upper position you've had your sights set on. These sorts of thoughts create a lot of bitterness, they encourage anger, and they often create an "us verses them" mentality.
Option 2 - Tell your boss. Now this one is tempting! Why should you have to go and approach this coworker? It's not really your issue anyways, you are his peer. The real job of holding people accountable is the leader, that's what they get paid for. So, you stamper down the hall and rattle off all of your frustrations to your boss, feeling completely relieved and pretty free after unloading. And then you look at your leader's face and realize that perhaps you've made a big mistake. You've placed it into her lap and now she has three similar options:
#1 - She could do nothing, yet if she did this you'd be completely upset. Feelings of irritation surge through your body as you start to wonder if your boss cares at all. Why can't she just go and take care of this issue?
#2 - She could go and talk to your coworker. Hallelujah, this is what you want...but is it really. Even if your boss is exceptionally articulate and explains the situation in the most heart-felt way, what happens to your relationship with your coworker? Do you think he is going to want to interact with you again? Or, do you think he is going to constantly be asking, "I wonder what else she's going to go running to the boss about?" You see, this may seem like a great option, but it is actually one of the most damaging options out there.
#3 - Finally, she may turn to you and give you coaching advice on how to help you have the conversation with your coworker. Of the options your boss has, this one will be the longer lasting and more impactful option, which leads us to your third option.
Option 3 - Talk to him. No matter how scary this seems, it really is the only viable option. Ignoring it will only encourage him to continue to let you down, running off to your boss will only damage the relationship, and so you must confront. Sure, this is going to be awkward. Yes, he may have forgotten about the commitment, or perhaps he had a lot of priorities and simply decided to put other priorities ahead of yours. Or, in the worst case scenario, maybe he is trying to sabotage you. Either way, you'll not really know the truth unless you talk to him. Plus, when you do, you set up the expectation that when he commits to do something for you, you will follow up. When we were kids we called this peer pressure and spoke of it as though it was one of the worst concepts on the planet. Now we are adults, and it is perhaps the most powerful force employed by highly effective teams.
"As politically incorrect as it sounds, the most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure!" Patrick Lencioni
When we create an environment where peers commit AND follow through with each other, we create an environment where things get done. Not only this, every time we have one of these conversations and every time we follow through, we build trust. Please understand, accountability is not the leader's job, it is your job. One of my good friends Robin Kellogg (from whom I've been able to take many of these ideas), told me "The leader is the ultimate source of accountability, but the team is the primary source of accountability." I think no one else could say it better.
So, when a coworker lets you down, deal with it. There just really is no other option.