Holding People Accountable When They Don’t Report to You

2 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Managing a Project Team

Project managers sometimes face the problem of working with people who don't report to them administratively. If such a person falls through on a promise to get something done for your project, then holding her accountable can be a touchy issue.

You may not try to hold her accountable because you think it’s inappropriate (after all, you’re not her boss) or because you don’t know how to do so. But remember: Holding people accountable is appropriate and necessary when they’ve accepted a responsibility.

Accountability helps people know that they’re on the right track, and it enables you to acknowledge when they’ve completed the promised assignments. You don’t need authority to hold people accountable; the people just have to have accepted the responsibility.

Use the following approaches to hold people accountable when you don’t have direct authority over them:

  • Find out who has direct authority over the person and bring that supervisor into the process: Consider soliciting the approval of the person’s boss when you ask the person to accept responsibility for a task. When you do so correctly and at the right time, you can improve the chances for success.

    If a person’s boss is unaware that her staff member agreed to perform a task for you, your chances of getting the boss’s help when the person fails to perform as promised are small. However, if the boss supported her staff member’s offer to help you when it was made, the boss and her staff member shouldn’t be surprised if you solicit the boss’s help when the staff member doesn’t do the task.

  • Put it in writing: Put your agreement in writing to formalize it, to clarify the terms, and to serve as a reminder to both you and the person agreeing to do the task. If the person asks whether you want to have a written agreement because you don’t trust that she’ll do what she promises, explain to her that if you didn’t trust her, you wouldn’t work with her at all!

  • Be specific: The clearer you make your request, the easier it is for the person to estimate the effort she needs to respond to the request and to produce the right result the first time. You may feel that being too specific is inappropriate because you have no direct authority over her. But recognize that putting a request in writing doesn’t make it an order; it just clarifies its specifics and makes it easier to perform.

  • Follow up: Negotiate a schedule to monitor the person’s performance and to address any issues or questions that arise. Be sure to

    • Negotiate a follow-up schedule at the outset of the agreement. If you call unannounced at random times, you appear to be checking up because you don’t trust the person.

    • Base your follow-up schedule on when the person plans to achieve certain intermediate milestones; this timeline gives you more objective criteria for an assessment.

  • Make the person accountable to the team: Your most valuable professional asset is your reputation. When a person promises to do something for you, let others on your team know about the promise. When the person lives up to that promise, acknowledge her accomplishment in front of her colleagues. If the person fails to live up to the promise, let her know you’ll share that information with others.

  • Get commitment: When a person indicates that she’ll help you out, be sure to get a firm, specific commitment that the desired result will be achieved by a specific time and for a specific cost. Beware of vague declarations like “I’ll give it my best effort” or “You can count on me.”

  • Create a sense of urgency and importance: You may want to minimize any pressure the person feels by offering to understand if she can’t perform to your expectations because of one reason or another. Unfortunately, this approach suggests that the work you’re asking her to do isn’t really that important and actually increases the chance that she won’t complete it. Instead, let the person know how her work influences other activities and people on the project. Let her know why she needs to perform to expectations and what the consequences will be — to the project and the organization — if she doesn’t.

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The Essentials of Managing a Project Team

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