The Hardest Things in the World: Expectations and Accountability

Posted by Julie • May 26, 2022 • 4 min read

As leaders, one of the toughest things we face is setting clear expectations, gaining alignment from others, and creating structures for accountability.

And, if we have set expectations, we need to expect everyone to be accountable to them.

So let’s do this together, leaders! (No surprise I’m writing this to rally myself!)

What Is An Expectation?

Easy? Not really. Is an expectation a color-by-number picture? We know the outcome because we know the color that should go in each space? Or is an expectation set of guidelines? “In the end, your picture must include an elephant.”

One of my closest friends said, “You have to tell people *exactly* what you expect.” Yet, I’d prefer to provide guidelines, and give some flex inside the space.

In the end, an expectation can be either – a color-by-number list or a set of guidelines. As leaders, you have the right to have very defined expectations and those with give. Presumably, you have situations that require different approaches. And presumably, you have adults working for you that should be able to navigate either.

How do you know when it is time to set, or reset, an expectation?

You see a pattern that is creating friction. Why?

  1. People are ignoring the expectation in willful defiance .

  2. People do not know what is expected due to lack of clarity.

  3. People know the expectation, but neither peers nor management holds them accountable.

Why Do We Avoid Accountability?

It is the hardest thing to do because it means one adult will have to open an awkward conversation with another adult about something they did, or did not do, which we thought was understood.  This awkward conversation is a strong deterrent to accountability – so strong, in fact, that we often make excuses:

  • “It only happened once. It if happens again, I’ll talk to them about it.”
  • “”It’s not that big of a deal, it’s not the battle I want to fight today.”
  • “If I confront the behavior, the employee may react poorly and negativity hurts the team right now.”
  • “I didn’t talk to this other person and they did something similar, so now it looks like I’m being unfair to the new person.”
  • “I hate these conversations because I feel like a jerk and I want to have positive energy.”

But we have to. How do we create accountability?

Before losing your cool, which can be a thing…

Validate “The Issue”. Is it a one-off or a pattern?

If it’s a one-off, is it egregious enough to approach with a team or the whole org, or it is a rare individual circumstance?

Determine what expectations you have related to performance or behavior related to The Issue.

If The Issue has been validated, gather the right people and put forth a suggestion for betterment. Put the suggestion in writing for clarity.

Then, provide an opportunity for people to weigh in on the guidance.

Once you’ve gained alignment, share the expectation with everyone.

Now, the hard part. Accountability. Someone misses the mark. And The Issue lands on your desk as a leader to be the arbiter of truth – even though it probably should have been resolved before it ever floated up. Which means…your managers may have avoided accountability because a.) they are human and found themselves using one of the excuses above or b.) the employee thought they might be able to get an exception or the expectation wasn’t intended for them.

Use this as an opportunity to coach. I find it’s great to role play the difficult conversation with a trusted advisor. Refer back to the expectation that was originally shared, and craft words as to why The Issue was outside the expectation. Try to frame the expectation in the clear affirmative when possible.

EXAMPLE: “Together, our team and organization agreed to the expectation that all employees are expected to be strong contributors to their teams and this includes being present and ensuring coverage when out. When you are not here, our coverage model breaks down and it puts strain on others and leaves gaps. The team is depending on your contribution so I need for you to align with the work hours we have agreed upon.”

Good luck. I’d recommend using your performance management system to document both expectations and corresponding accountability conversations. 

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