Holding People Accountable (Part 2) | Systemation Blog
Holding People Accountable (Part 1)
June 10, 2010
The Shortest Path to a Good Project Management Methodology
July 7, 2010
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Holding People Accountable (Part 2)

Even if you follow all the practices laid out in Holding People Accountable (Part 1), you may still find team members failing to deliver as promised. Don’t be surprised. Most of the time team members intend to deliver or act upon a healthy agreement, but poor professional skills or uncontrollable environmental issues derail the outcome and accountability falters.

If you are finding that accountability is still lacking be careful not to assume that the team member doesn’t care when they don’t deliver, as most genuinely do care and feel committed to both the project manager and the project. Instead, consider these top five reasons for missed accountability:

  1. Underdeveloped time-management skills. An employee might lose focus, dawdle, or forget various tasks.
  2. Inadequate job-estimation skills. An overly optimistic team member may agree to complete a particular task without truly understanding its scope, thus underestimating the amount of time it will take to complete the task.
  3. Lack of project-domain expertise. For instance, an expert in a certain discipline may be able to complete a specific task in one week, whereas a novice may require two weeks to successfully complete the task because of countless reworks.
  4. Failure to understand a task or activity’s priority in relationship to other work. This typically occurs when individuals can’t grasp their current duty’s impact and how it relates to the “big picture.” They view this project element as unimportant when it’s actually crucial to success.
  5. Poor attitude. It’s rare, but sometimes employees simply don’t care, put forth effort or feel a sense of “project passion.” For instance, one worker simply might dislike the project manager. This is most commonly manifested in passive-aggressive behaviors, such as putting on “a face of cooperation and concern” and then undermining the project manager’s efforts in discreet and subtle ways.

Perhaps one of the least enjoyable aspects of the project manager’s job in regards to failed accountability is analyzing the mishap’s implications and determining its root cause. The breakdown could simply be a fluke; or something or someone, including you, might truly be responsible. But remember, your mission is not to determine fault for the sole purpose of blame.

Consider the 1986 tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger. NASA collected data and immediately set to solving the reason why the explosion occurred, dismissing the media’s probe for who was to blame. That’s not saying individuals weren’t responsible for the disaster. However, if the engineers and scientists had sat around dwelling upon blame, they may have never been able to uncover what happened and how to avoid such future tragedies.

Once you have identified the root cause in a situation of failed accountability, you must establish another agreement. In addition to that agreement, what was originally promised is still required for your project’s success. But, this time you must more frequently check up on the project’s status to adequately monitor this second agreement.

Sometimes, despite numerous attempts to uphold accountability, a trend of missed commitments develops with individuals. While these situations may seem hopeless, remember, it’s your job to boost the team’s commitment level to achieve project results. Options include:

  • Motivation – The least aggressive approach to boosting employee commitment, this approach is reasonably effective but requires extra effort on your part. Coach the individual on their skill deficits and help them deliver on their commitment. Or consider offering additional enticements to increase the team member’s desire to deliver as agreed. Either of these approaches will enhance the relationship between you and the team member.
  • Coercion – Capable of producing immediate, noticeable results, this tactic can strain the relationship between you and your team member. For example, if you’re unhappy with a team member’s work, you might give this worker a poor performance review. A project manager can also coerce change by complaining to the team member’s boss if that person doesn’t work directly for the project manager. Another great approach is publicly discussing the situation, revealing the cause for the failed accountability without using a tone of blame. This tactic puts peer pressure on the team member to take ownership of the situation and change it.

If motivation and coercion fail, and the negative trend continues to plague the project’s success, look for a different environment in which that troublesome employee may work or inflict the least amount of damage to the team’s productivity. The key is to reduce the impact or totally eliminate the source of accountability failure. Some project managers might think it’s OK to intimidate (physical threats or extreme verbal confrontations) someone into job commitment, but keep in mind that it’s illegal to do so. If you’re even tempted to follow such a path, remember that a better option is to seek the employee’s termination or an in-house transfer.

As the project manager, you must master the art of accountability. Despite challenges, you do have the ability to deliver on the expectations of your executives. When you’re feeling trapped, hopeless, and uninspired by your responsibilities as project manager, don’t give in. Instead, take the appropriate steps to successfully hold people accountable – it’s a big clue into how good project managers become great ones.