How to Drive Accountability, The Power of The Phrase “when exactly?”

Does accountability seem like a forgotten concept in our world today? How many times have you heard a colleague or friend say “I’ll call you” or “I’ll email you on that” only to never, ever hear from them again? How many times have you yourself said, “I’ll get back to you” knowing full well that there is little chance you will? Then there is the story we tell ourselves around “Well I sent them an email” or “I left a message,” as if taking one little action – which could easily be missed, forgotten or misinterpreted – is enough to make it someone else’s problem instead of our own. One thing we love to complain about is the lack of follow up or follow through we see around us. So what can we do?

First stop: How is your own accountability?

As always, the first place to look for being accountable is at your own accountability. If you are a boss, manager or leader, your team is watching you to set the tone. If you are an individual contributor, people are watching you too for how best to work, especially if you are getting results.

Do you keep up with your emails? Voice mails? Do you have a system to manage them?

The next thing I hear from clients is “It’s impossible, I get 200 new emails a day!” So what has you receiving all those emails? Your inability to say “no”? Look around at your life – what can you say no to so that everything you say yes to gets followed up or followed through with? If you say yes to everything, you won’t follow through or deliver on it all. You don’t physically have the time or energy. If “no” is too scary, try mastering the words – “I need to look at my project list and get back to you about this. Please ask me again at 10:00am in 3 days (or one week or the most realistic amount of time that will have you be ready and have reviewed your task list)”

Master the phrase “when exactly?”

Did you see what I did there in the last paragraph? I made sure to say a date and time for getting back to someone and even set them up to come to me! This is what a commitment conversation looks like:

Requester: Would you be able to do X?

The responder may say one of the following:

  1. Yes! I’ll get right on it OR
  2. Let me get back to you about that OR
  3. Is there someone else who can help you/us? I am really too busy right now

The best response to drive accountability for answers 1 or 2 are:

  1. What day and what time can you have this to me? OR
  2. When exactly will I have it/hear from you/etc?

So none of this is news but yet there is something fundamental in all of us that resists this simple, incredibly effective conversation. It will be different for all of us but it is in the ballpark of “we’re all adults here, no one has to parent each other anymore and hold each other’s hands” or “it will take too much time and be too awkward to pull out my phone, look at my calendar and book a follow up time with this person” or “it’s patronizing and micromanaging to ask for specifics.” The bottom line is we seem to want to avoid saying this at all costs. And the cost is dear.

Once you have accepted that this is something between us all, see if you can acknowledge it, and let it go. In practice it looks like this “I should probably ask Jim when he will have that write up for me but I won’t bother… Aha! That’s that human-nature thing that accountability article was talking about! No way am I going to miss this chance to get results! I better try to get specific and follow up.”

You can train yourself slowly with your family and friends. The next time someone says, “We should have you guys over for dinner,” give them a reply like, “Sounds great! Let’s see when we can do that right now so we can totally look forward to it!” Or when you mention that you’ll fix that outstanding home project to your spouse, try adding a “and I’ll do that by next Sunday!” after you’ve checked your calendar and made sure that you can of course!

Developing a new work habit is like learning to drive. At first, it takes so much conscious brainpower to look around and remember to turn on the signal, press the gas pedal just the right amount, check the mirrors, etc. By the 20th time we get behind the wheel, it doesn’t take so much and before we know it, our habits are deeply rooted and unconscious. When you’re first learning how to stop yourself in your tracks, pull out your calendar and to-do list and make sure things fit into your world BEFORE you commit, or book “by when” appointments with the people around you, it’s going to take some serious effort. But before long, you’ll be energized by your results and be in the driver’s seat with accountability!

Thanks for reading.

Sarah Laughton
Stretch Solutions Inc.

Personal Productivity Training
It’s time for you to stretch yourself!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.