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The Secret to Improving Accountability

People try to get things done, but stuff often falls through the cracks. Here's how to make yourself and everyone else more accountable.


Nothing is more frustrating in a work environment then when things fall through the cracks.

Most of the time, it's not intentional. At the rate that business moves today, people are often overloaded with responsibilities that go beyond their capacity. And when things get missed the complaining and blame throwing begins. "Why can't these people do what they say? Why can't they be accountable?" Sometimes people have to ask the same question about personal commitments they make to themselves and then abandon.

The answer is actually pretty simple.

It's an issue of prioritization. When people are overloaded, they prioritize their actions to manage the workload, sometimes subconsciously. Following are the three criteria that must be present for a task to reach the top of the prioritization list. Any task missing one of these three is doomed to be low priority, unless of course you follow the rectifying suggestions below.

1. Motivation

People mostly do what they want to do. If the motivation is unclear or nonexistent then people will find a way to procrastinate a task until the bitter end--particularly when there is something else available they can justify as more important. People are good at rationalizing why something can wait if they hate doing the task or know that there is little reason to move on it. On a personal level you can witness this with  commitments such as losing weight or quitting smoking.  Saying you want something is different than actually wanting it, especially when discomfort is imminent.

Resolution: Whether the task is yours or belongs to someone else, establish a clear, compelling reason for why it should be done. Identify how people will benefit from getting the task done. If you are dealing with an unmotivated employee or colleague, have a conversation and identify the block. Perhaps the act of support may be enough to resolve the issue. Or lending a helping hand may provide the motivation necessary to move the task up in priority.

2. Consequence

The world functions on the basis of cause and effect. Actions taken create some sort of result, either positive or negative.  Most people don't consider that inaction does the same. When people don't see a clear result from getting the task done, they will lessen the priority and focus on the tasks they know will produce desired results. Without consequence, people are more likely to keep spending energy on reactive tasks like answering their smartphone or responding to a Facebook post.

Resolution: Make sure that every assigned task has a clear, stated result both for completion and for leaving it undone. Great leaders will establish the upside of completion and the down side of letting it slide so that those responsible clearly understand the importance and impact of getting it done.

3. Structure

One of the biggest reasons things don't get done is that the person responsible doesn't actually know how to proceed.  He or she may not have the knowledge or resources and no one wants to appear stupid or inept. Without a clear step-by-step plan to proceed, the task will move to the bottom of the pile, giving way to more familiar tasks.

Resolution: Develop an easy one-page plan for dealing with any task. Include space on the page for a timeline, motivation and consequence. Make sure the action steps are clearly spelled out and put a space for resources required and questions to be answered. Leave nothing to chance and remove all excuses.

If any one of these three factors is left unresolved, the task will become low priority when weighed against all the other work on a person's plate. A little forethought and communication will go a long way in helping people be more productive, meeting the expectations of all involved, even their own.

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IMAGE: Reza Estakhrian/Getty
Last updated: Jul 19, 2013

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An Inc. 500 entrepreneur with a more than $1 billion sales and marketing track record, KEVIN DAUM is the best-selling author of Video Marketing for Dummies and the executive producer of Amilya! on 77WABC New York.

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