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How to Hold Others Accountable, Even When You Don’t Have Authority

The success or failure of an organization comes down to how people are held accountable for decisions, policies, or processes. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine who is accountable when project goals aren’t met.

The general rule is, if you’re responsible for a task, you should be held accountable if things go wrong. Gray areas and miscommunication can arise, however, if the people responsible for project-related tasks do not directly report to you. While you may want to hold certain people accountable for underperformance, you may not be able to.

Fortunately, holding others accountable is not always about who has or doesn’t have authority. The following guidelines can help you exercise a degree of control over whether others work toward a shared outcome.

Go Up the Chain of Command

First, find out who your target reports to and incorporate him or her into your process. Determine whether this person is aware that their subordinate has agreed to perform a task for you. If they are, then find out if he or she supports the task getting done. This will make it easier for you to approach your target if progress is not being made.

Clarify Your Expectations

Next, write down the task in the clearest terms possible and share it with the person you are trusting to perform this assignment for you. This method holds people accountable because it helps to clarify the requirements of the task, and you can always go back and point to text messages or emails you’ve sent if there is ambiguity down the line. Be as specific as possible and include an end date that reflects when tasks should be completed.

Communicate With Others

Let others in your inner circle know that said person has a responsibility to you. Communicating your expectations to others can help reinforce and confirm an obligation someone has made. If the person knows that others share your expectations, he or she will be more likely to follow through.

Follow Up

Don’t be afraid to follow up as often as necessary. Come up with a private schedule to help you keep track of how often you should check in with this person. Introduce your follow-ups by asking, in the nicest terms possible, if the person has questions or issues. An appropriate way to phrase a follow up is, “How’s the task coming along? Did you get a chance to review the information I sent you?” Don’t assume that no news is good news.

Make the Task Forefront in the Person’s Mind

Don’t downplay the sense of urgency involved in your project. Telling someone you’ll understand if they don’t come through is a free pass to get someone to underperform. Don’t be afraid to communicate the time-sensitive nature of a task, its deadline, and its overall importance in the context of your project goals.

Examine How the Obligation is Being Interpreted

Ask yourself whether the obligation is being interpreted as a personal or professional responsibility. For example, you may find yourself in a tricky situation if you confirm an obligation over the phone. You might call up a friend to ask for help on some aspect of a project. Once they assure you they will, you hang up.

A while later, you haven’t heard back from them and you are wondering whether that person has let you down. The fact is, your friend may have interpreted your suggestion as a personal request since he or she is not on your project team, did not receive written confirmation or guidelines and does not report to anyone in your inner circle.

The practice of holding people accountable can be a touchy issue. In general, your goal should be to strike an appropriate balance between keeping everyone on the right track and staying on track yourself. Accountability lets you know whether others are completing their assignments and whether their obligations to you are being interpreted as a professional responsibility, rather than as a personal favor.

Remember, you don’t always need authority to hold the line.

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