Even though it's been over a decade ago, I vividly recall my shock when sitting in a committee meeting for a non-profit. The chair asked us each to report back on the task we agreed to do. The second told us that she hadn't started on her assignment because it had been a very busy month at work. Also, she didn't offer a deadline by which she would get it done. Nor did she acknowledge how her lapse was going to stall our project.
As a journalist, I lived by deadlines and, unless I was at death's door, I was expected to keep them. The man across from me, a former Marine, was the only other person who looked momentarily startled as the chair continued around the table, asking others to give their reports. When our committee took a break, and the Marine and I fell into step towards the coffee, he turned to me and said, point blank, "My wife's also a journalist. She warned me that things would be different in civilian life. She's encouraged me by saying that perhaps only soldiers, surgeons and journalists must be utterly accountable for the task we are given."
As serial entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld noted, some people don't even follow up on a chance to participate in their declared interest. He's discovered a powerfully simple way of weeding out those who lack follow-through. Assign them a task and see what they do or don't do.
If this is a hot button behavior for you, too, here are four ways to spur people to keep the agreements they make:
1. Specificity Boosts Clarity and Accountability
The more concrete the agreement, the more clear the obligation and the more difficult it is for someone to misunderstand. "Please get right on that" does not create as much clarity nor accountability as, "Please finalize your choice of vendors by 5 p.m. tomorrow."
2. Peer Accountability Pins Us Together
Although this did not work on the non-profit committee, when peers meet face-to-face or via group video and make specific agreements with each other and they all have a stake in the outcome there's a higher probability of securing accountability.
3. Written Proof So We Don't Goof
To reinforce the power of mutual accountability, have a designated meeting recorder (or take turns with the role) so one participant is responsible for recording action items, deadlines and who's responsible for each item. The recorder sends that list to all participants' computers before they leave the meeting.
4. Upfront Rules of Engagement Are Our Guardrails
A company, team, or committee is more likely to spur mutual accountability when it adopts a few, specific agreements about how people will operate together, from punctuality to pithiness in writing or conversing.
Not keeping one's word is a form of betrayal akin to lying by omission. Alternatively, Margaret Paul offers five reasons to do what you say you will do. Carl Jung wrote, "You are what you do, not what you say you will do."
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