Is this your best work?

Throughout my leadership coaching experiences, both in one-on-one and group coaching situations (through our Discovery-in-Action® program), the challenge of how leaders can better hold their people accountable is often explored.  While the classic disciplines of setting clear expectations; effectively delegating; and linking to consequences are often discussed, I often tell a story of when, as a staff member, I actually felt most accountable.

Many years ago, I worked for one of the large accounting/consulting firms and as we undertook pieces of client work we would ‘pass it up the line’ for review by the next level of management.  In such situations you were fully aware that any work papers or reports produced (particularly as a relatively junior team member) would go through a quality review process. This type of practice is still prevalent in most professional environments today.  Now, one of the problems with this method is that in the back of your mind you knew (or hoped) that someone else would eventually pick up any ‘mistakes’ you had made – this, likely at an unconscious level made you feel slightly less accountable for the work that you were producing.  Shocking but true!  On one occasion, however, I was working for a Manager that I hadn’t worked for before and, as per common practice, I passed my workpapers onto him for his review.  In that moment he asked me one simple question that literally stopped me in my tracks and made me feel more accountable for my work than I’d ever felt before.  As I handed the document to him, he simply asked me:

Is it right?

This is a great example of where a closed question, can be extremely powerful in the right circumstances.  I either had to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in that moment.  If I answered ‘yes’ I was taking full accountability for my work.  If I answered ‘no’, what in the hell was I giving it to him for?  My actual answer was ‘let me just check it again before I give it back to you’.  I suddenly felt personally responsible for what I gave to him.  This lesson learned has stuck with me for 30 years!

Now, not all work documents being passed up the line lend themselves to the precise question: Is it right?  Perhaps a more universal question that can be posed by a leader might be:

Is it your best work?

Again, it is a deliberately closed question that asks someone to take full responsibility for their work.  A responder either commits themselves through a ‘yes’ response or, as I did, goes away to check over their work.  Not many people will want to say ‘no’ and hand it over!

So, if this approach to holding people accountable has some appeal, how might it look in practical terms that is not at risk of being perceived as a potential ‘gotcha moment’ by a manipulative manager. Below are some suggestions about how to make it work in practice:

  1. Tell your team that this is the approach you are going to take and why.  It is likely to be more well-received if you are transparent about the approach you are using and doesn’t make feel people blind-sided by the question.  Otherwise it could be felt to be ‘too cute’ by some.
  2. Ensure that people have a sound basis for self-assessing their work before making it available for review i.e. they are clear about what criteria you would be using judge its quality?  People can then ask themselves: Will it pass the [insert Manager name here] test?  High expectations lead to high performance.
  3. Make sure that they are aware that a further option/response is possible to the question: Is it your best work?  Make it OK that they can also respond with: ‘Yes, it is my best effort, however I’m not sure about a couple of things.  I’d really like some feedback about X, Y and Z.’  This can help contribute to developing a feedback culture where people are asking for feedback, rather than you having to give feedback.  This puts the power in the hands of those asking for feedback and avoids risk of the fight or flight brain response.
  4. It will not always be appropriate or fair to ask this question e.g. where you’ve asked for a quick turnaround on a piece of work where time constraints may have impacted the quality.  However, when a suitable opportunity presents itself then ask the question!
  5. Taking this approach, does not obviate the need to attend to some of the other basics – providing clear expectations, communicating the broader context for the work, ensuring the capability of the person undertaking the work matches the task etc.
  6. Make sure to acknowledge and thank people for their work and how it was good. You might also take up any teaching opportunities on how they might get even better over time.

This approach potentially has the ‘toughness’ of holding people to account without it being a tough or brutal experience for yourself or your people.  In essence, you are building an environment where people are holding themselves to a high standard.  Perhaps the real question is not how can I hold my people accountable, but rather how can I get my people to hold themselves accountable?