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Bruce Tulgan

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Employee accountability: it means nothing without clear expectations


Remember that the first and most important element in creating real accountability is spelling out expectations up front in clear terms. If you are the boss, your number one responsibility is to make absolutely sure that every person you manage understands exactly what he is expected to do and exactly how he is expected to do it.

It is amazing how many managers protest, ‘I shouldn’t have to tell my employees what to do and how to do it. They should know how to do their jobs already.’

But then in the next breath, these same managers complain that some of their employees fail to meet expectations often and that most of their employees fail to meet expectations at least some of the time. How are employees supposed to meet – much less exceed – expectations if nobody tells them in clear, simple terms exactly what’s expected of them?

And yet most managers hesitate to give orders. They don’t want to boss people around.

It is simply a fallacy that rehearsing wrong ways of doing things is a good way to learn how to do things right. If an employee reinvents the wheel every time, she will probably spend a lot of time practicing and learning bad techniques that will have to be unlearned.

Trial and error is a good way of solving a new problem; it is not a good w ay of learning best practices. And it’s certainly not a way to get employees to take ownership of their work. In fact, do employees ever really own their jobs, or are they paid to do very specific tasks within closely defined parameters? Is what they do and how they do it ever really up to them?

Employees only own their jobs – to the extent they possibly can – precisely when managers clarify exactly what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it.

The truth is that most managers adopt this ‘facilitative’ approach to managing – rather than explicitly ‘directive’ approach – because it’s much easier to sidestep the uncomfortable tension that comes from telling other people exactly what to do.

But real managers give orders. Orders are simply mandatory directions.

If you don’t like the idea of giving orders, think of it as placing an order with a vendor. Imagine that your employee is a free agent, in business for herself, and you are the customer.

Every time you give an assignment to your employee, imagine that you are placing a work order or a contract with a vendor. Are all the terms of the order spelled out?

Have you clearly stated the service or product – including its specifications and delivery date – you will receive in exchange for payment? If you expect an employee to do anything at all, you need to tell him exactly what to do. If you expect him to do it one way as opposed to another, you must tell him exactly what specifications you expect him to follow.

If you truly believe in being a facilitative manager rather than a directive one, then you need to be a very aggressive facilitator. Yes, management conversations should be interactive dialogues. That means you need to ask really good questions:

  • Ask basic questions: ‘Can you do this? Are you sure? What do you need from me?’
  • Ask probing questions: ‘How are you going to do that? How are you going to start? What steps will you follow?’
  • Ask short, focalizing questions: ‘How long will this step take? How long will that step take? What does your checklist look like?’

How hard should you try to let employees reach the right conclusions on their own? That depends on how much extra time you have. Be prepared for a lot of wild goose chasing in the conversation. Do you have time for that?

Ask an employee to think out loud about how she might approach and assignment but then skillfully lead the employee to the right conclusions as fast as possible:

  • Listen to what the employee says carefully and quickly evaluate how well the employee understands the requirements of the task at hand
  • Pay close attention to the gaps in her approach
  • Keep asking the employee to think out loud until the approach she imagines is gap free

Facilitate. Ask questions. Seek input. Let people think out loud. Make suggestions.

But never forget that your job is to make sure that every single employee knows every step of the way exactly what is expected of her, what she is supposed to do, and how she is supposed to do it.

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