Holding people accountable isn’t always about formal action. Sometimes it’s just a direct conversation.

On a recent discussion of a manager who wanted to be cc’d on everything, commenter Jamie mentioned that when someone who works for her is having trouble getting responses from someone else and she knows that seeing her cc’d will move them to action, she’ll suggest cc’ing her … but then she follows up privately with the non-responder to ask why it took that:

You would be amazed at how much crap you can cut through by just asking direct questions. And it’s not combative at all, or a reprimand…it’s a question.

“Thanks for getting back to Bob on X. Was there a reason you responded when I got involved and not before?”

And STOP talking and listen.

When I first started doing this, I’d keep talking and ask if it was because they didn’t think Bob had the authority, or they weren’t clear about their role…blah blah…so I would just get a resounding “yes” to the least objectionable reason.

Once I just asked the open-ended question and stopped talking …and stopped being bothered by their momentary discomfort, I learned a lot more. Sometimes Bob was sending contradictory emails so they were just ignoring until time to clarify, sometimes they were just swamped and owed Bob an apology for not communicating that, sometimes they just didn’t know who Bob thought he was asking them for X.

Or just a shrug, a mea culpa, and promise to communicate better going forward.

People talk about holding people accountable and some thing it always means write-ups or disciplinary action, or going over people’s heads. Sometimes just looking someone in the eye and asking why something wasn’t done is enough.

And I never ask this in email – this a face to face question.

The emphasis is mine, because I think that’s such a key point that managers don’t always quite realize. When you’re concerned about someone’s behavior, your choices aren’t between making a big formal deal out of it or letting it go. Just having a direct conversation with you about why something went wrong can create accountability and reinforce messages about how you want people to operate.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Fruitfly

    Great advice! I like the part about just asking the the question instead of giving the “what is because” afterwards!

  2. MR

    Just asking the direct question face-to-face can get an improvement in behavior or the answer that is needed. It doesn’t offer the wiggle room that sending an email provides and it allows you to cut through the crap – most of the time.

    1. Chinook

      I agree that direct face-to-face (or email-to-email/phone-to-phone if you can’t physically be there) question is the best way to get things done. I do it all the time and I can’t believe how much shorter the response time for paperwork from colleagues and vendor has gone down because they know that I will follow up and want to know details of when it will be done, not why it hasn’t been (thus keeping their dignity in tact by not pointing out how wrong their behaviour was)

      Sample questions:
      “I noticed your safety training has expired. What is your plan to get it done before you go back into the field?”
      “I noticed you clicked a task done in the work order but I cna’t find the paperwork. Where did you save it?” (note, the answer is usually “on my desktop” where no one else can read it)
      “I noticed that your insurance paperwork has been rejected. When can I expect the newest version to be uploaded to the site?” or “Is there anythign I can do to help you get the paperwork uploaded so the manager doesn’t quick you off the jobsite?”

      1. Turanga Leela

        So smart, and it really focuses on what’s important. The “Is there anything I can do to help…?” language is golden.

      2. uses of enchantment

        Depending on the particulars of the inquiry, I also find it is effective when one’s manager includes a couple of possible explanations in the form of a question to their initial question.

        Such as:

        “Hey Julio, I see that Part 2 of Project X is in “Resolved” status but not all the changes as outlined in the Task list were done. Did you mean to select “Testing” status instead? Did you see Page 2 of the Task list?”

        As a subordinate, if my manager offered a couple of reasonable explanations for why something is peculiar, it indicates to me that they have thought about what likely happened. And then, if they’ve explained it better than I could have, I can answer either

        “Yes! I meant to select ‘Testing’ not “Resolved’ — sorry, I will change it to ‘Testing’ now.”

        or

        “Hmm, that’s odd. I did select ‘Testing’ but it’s showing up as ‘Resolved.’ I was going to ask the rest of the team if they were seeing similar things before I contacted tech support. As for Page 2, I couldn’t get it to load for me; I’ve asked Jones in Teapots Graphics to send it to me via email.”

        1. Kay

          You can even do things like this when “managing up”. I work remotely, and got the email that I was receiving a raise, but it was less than I expected. I called and asked for feedback to find out what I could do next time to get the max raise and found out that my boss had selected the wrong amount from a drop down box. Really makes me glad I asked! Direct (but polite) questions are the way to go.

  3. Anonalicious

    This is excellent advise and I wish I knew how to get my manager to follow it. I’m so thankful Jamie is a commenter here.

    1. Sharon

      Agree 100%!

      I’ve been in this situation many times where a coworker ignores my emails until I cc the bosses in. I would just about kill to have any one of the bosses do what Jamie does. Instead what they universally do (universal in my 25-year career) is ignore it and let the bad behavior continue. Even when the person gets a reputation for not responding to emails, management does nothing. It’s extremely frustrating.

  4. ChiTown Lurker

    I never thought of this as holding people accountable. I always thought of it as part of a root cause analysis. I ask this question a lot and it has paid dividends for me in the past. However, I believe that it requires courage to ask the question as it creates a condition of shared accountability. Basically, unless I am prepared to do something in response to your reply, I would not ask the question. The unwillingness to take action will stop many, if not most, people from ever asking the question.

    1. Christine

      Yes! If you’re listening just to hear an explanation and then reiterate the expectations with no further action, you’re really not going to get anywhere. If you’re willing to drill, gently and receptively, for a root cause, which is almost never the first answer you get, and if you’re willing to do something about it, you’re more likely to actually make progress.

  5. AMG

    This is great advice; I am going to remember it. In fact, I may be using it tomorrow!

  6. LQ

    I tend to do the talking after too much, especially if I wait for a minute and they don’t respond I start offering suggestions as why they might have done whatever they did. This is a great reminder to keep my mouth closed and wait.

    1. Lady Sybil

      Yep, I’m learning to embrace the awkward silence as well. I’m also learning to ask questions with a genuine curiosity for the answer, instead of waiting for my suspicions to be confirmed. (Oh my, that looks horrendous in writing, but it’s true.) Bonus: the curiosity factor mitigates the awkward factor!

  7. Ask a Manager Post author

    If you’re wondering why there are comments on today’s post from June 29, it’s because I accidentally published it early that day and then quickly removed it, but the comments remained attached to it!

    1. HR “Gumption”

      Thank you! That explains why I questioned my clarity that Sunday morning. It was there, then poof- gone.

    2. KarenT

      Phew! I thought I was having a weird deja vu since I saw this when it first posted!

    3. MR

      I wondered why my original comment was here. I had a birthday since this was originally posted and thought maybe my older age was clouding what I could remember…

    4. NurseB

      I was super confused on the 29th when the article was in my feed but when I went to click through, there was no article. Was afraid I missed something. :-)

  8. Artemesia

    I love this advise. 75% of accountability is that the person being managed knows the boss is paying attention to what they do. But I know having been a manager that this kind of directness is difficult; lots of people end up in authority who don’t have this skill and thus there is a lot of bad management. I well remember the ridiculous lengths I would go to trying to figure out how to deal with a problem person when just talking to them directly would have worked better. A slow learn, but things got better when I did learn it.

    1. LBK

      75% of accountability is that the person being managed knows the boss is paying attention to what they do.

      I love this almost as much as Jamie’s whole comment. Most halfway-decent employees will self-correct any issues once they realize their managers are aware of what’s going on, without the manager even having to lay out consequences or come up with a performance plan.

      1. Not So NewReader

        Exactly, most employees will self-correct once a matter is brought to their attention. I found that usually most problems were a misunderstanding of some type.

        The tricky part is when you start doing the face-to-face questions. But once they get used to it, see what it is, then for the most part it is no problem.

        Of course, screaming bosses will not do well with this technique because they have already proven they cannot be trusted.

        This is a conversation that involves learning for the boss and the employee. It also helps to build trust as conversations are solution focused not blame focused.

      2. Sidney

        I also like this! I recently had an issue with one of the responsibilities I was assigned because I was frustrated with the lack of accountability. No one asked for updates on how it was going or cared if it didn’t get done perfectly/on-time/at all so it was hard to prioritize it but demoralizing to not work on it.

        (Related side note, if you ever assign someone to handle social media just because you think you should look savvy, make sure to tie it into your other communications goals.)

  9. Adam

    Face-to-face is king. No escape route and no leading questions will drag the most fascinating answers out of people.

  10. Jamie

    accountable and some thing it always

    See, I become a good commenter and don’t police my own typos and what happens? I get famous and then they are bolded for all to see!

    Just kidding – I think you can all infer that I meant think and not thing…although maybe I had a cold that day and was typing in my voice to give it character. Yeah, let’s go with that.

    (fwiw this advice works for parenting, too – you’ll be amazed at what you’ll hear once you ask and stop talking.)

    1. Flashback Thursday

      It’s also great for marriage! Just last night I asked a question without giving possible answers (why do we do this anyways?) and shut up and it was great. I understood him better because I heard him instead of my theories.

      1. Persephone Mulberry

        Agreed 100%, although I’m still working on it myself. I have to literally bite my tongue to stop talking rather than expounding on all the reasons that I thought of that might be contributing to whatever the issue is.

      2. Jamie

        I think there are a couple of reasons we do it (we collectively, not me and you personally):

        1. We’re trying to save time and get a resolution while simultaneously avoiding awkwardness – because the silence while they are formulating a thought or stumbling for an answer is awkward (much less for me now that I’m used to it – always awkward on the other side though.)

        2. We are trying to help people avoid trouble by giving them a plausible answer that we can live with rather than the truth we might need to deal with which can be unpleasant and a lot of work.

        3. Control. If I feed you the answer I think it is and you agree then my life is easier because I already thought of that and have an answer and a plan. I probably have an answer and a plan for a couple of plausible scenarios. But if the truth comes out of left field and I didn’t prepare for that…I am less in control of the process.

        4. * some other reason I hadn’t thought of

        I am not saying we do any of these things consciously – but I think it’s a way of keeping things moving without dipping into some uncomfortable territory. And most of the time the answers aren’t all that remarkable – but the real problems and truth do lie in the uncomfortable territory. We need to figure out what is and not orchestrate what we want to hear.

        And that part of it totally applies to marriage!

        * ages ago, long before I even had a career a friend once pointed out to me that whatever is annoying me I always have 3 things it could be. I will decide the reasons can only possibly be one of 3 things and I didn’t leave room for anything I hadn’t previously thought of. She found it amusing or annoying depending on the topic and her mood. But she said it was like I was programmed – I never varied and I rarely speculated far from what makes sense to me. So when my then bf now husband would piss me off and the reason wouldn’t be on my itemized list of 3 I had a very hard time seeing it as an acceptable reason.

        My friend pointed out if she were my bf she’d have killed me long ago, because it’s highly annoying to be told your feelings can’t be correct merely because I didn’t think of them first.

        Anyway, it was one of those things that stuck with me – I do tend to want everything put into a logical little box immediately and conversations and other people’s thoughts and feelings can often get in the way of that. It’s definitely something I still have to be aware of because if I’m not conscious of it I can tend to want to do other people’s thinking for them in certain instances and if there is one thing humanity can agree on it’s that everyone hates that about me.

        1. Headachey

          Oh, good lord, number 3 – guilty! Though another motivator there might be efficiency/saving time like number 1.

    2. hildi

      “(fwiw this advice works for parenting, too – you’ll be amazed at what you’ll hear once you ask and stop talking.)”

      I desperately need to do this – in all aspects of life, but I’m in the thick of establish non-neanderthal habits in my 4 year old and need to listen to her more instead of leading her.

      1. hildi

        I meant leading her with the answer I expect. Oh nevermind. I botched this whole comment.

        I like the original sentiment, Jamie. :)

      2. Jamie

        Keep at it – it will pay off in about 5 years. But tbh I think the only answer a 4 year old will ever give is “just cuz…oh look, a butterfly! Mommy, I love you!”

        But they are so cute they get away with it. My dad said that’s why kids have to start off as babies. So you fall in love with them while they are adorable so by the time they are teenagers you don’t ship them overseas in an unmarked box.

        1. Sunshine

          And they’re horrible as teenagers to make the separation of adulthood… easier to bear. Although the unmarked box is an appealing alternative.

          1. Lady Sybil

            I never thought of the teenage years as getting the parents prepared for the separation of adulthood. It’s true, it goes both ways. I’ll keep that in my pocket for when my little girls get bigger :)

            Right now I can’t bear the thought of them growing up and moving away. I think I’ll go give them a squish right now.

      3. Jean

        Yes, indeedy. This applies to parenting! Not to reignite the parent wars, but I think the awareness of having developed this skill is why some people include a description of child-raising duties on their resume.
        As for shipping in the unmarked box: No labels needed because the person within would be supplying a steady stream of (sarcastic? caustic? wry?) commentary. Of course, this is all purely theoretical.

  11. cuppa

    I love so many things about this site, but my absolute favorite is finding ways to say and phrase certain questions and statements just right. Great advice as always!

  12. Big Tom

    Geez, teacher’s pet.
    :)
    Seriously though, as Jamie mentioned above, the usefulness of this advice is not limited to the workplace.

  13. BritCred

    Totally. I have so much more respect for the boss that sits down and says “why did X get done this way” and “This is why we suggest doing X another way….” and explains the effects etc.

    The bosses who just send memos every week saying “stick to procedure Y for task X” even though we point out why we can’t use procedure Y however….

    I had one in particular that did this and thought that the reason funds were not coming in from customers were we weren’t following their schedule of calls and emails. If only we followed that…. They got annoyed when I asked them in the 5th weekly repetition of this mantra when they thought we hadn’t followed that procedure. Sorry, Credit control/Accounts Recieveable does not confirm to a formula that means that we aren’t following procedure just because the client hasn’t paid. There are humans involved that we can’t control!

  14. Vancouver Reader

    As always great advice. I never want to be a manager again, but like others have mentioned, this advice goes beyond just the workplace. Although truth be told, I’d rather have Jamie do the asking and I’ll just stand behind her and say “yeah, what she said.”

  15. hnl123

    This works when talking with friends and family too. Often we talk talk talk in a desperate effort to fill the awkwardness, but often when we talk, we give the other person ammunition, or the choice to say yes to the easiest thing.
    At my former job we had a lot of management training, and asking a direct question and then remaining silent was something we actually practiced. Because it doesn’t feel natural at first.

  16. ExceptionToTheRule

    I have to have an accountability conversation with someone tonight, so this is very timely scripting for me. Thank you.

  17. Sunshine

    Great post and fantastic advice for us all. I find myself able to GIVE this kind of advice whem I’m coaching other managers. Not so easy to LIVE it. Work in progress.

  18. Libby

    I’ve been reading this site voraciously for about a month. I love the posts and discussions. I teach in higher ed, and the insights here are widely applicable to my work.

    One thought to share: sometimes “how” elicits better answers than “why”? For example if I’m dealing with a plagiarism case, “How did this happen” invites the student to both offer an explanation and acknowledge that they made a bad decision. “Why did you do it” on the other hand tends to stifle the conversation because they know there’s no legitimate excuse. “Why” can make people think they’re supposed to have a simple answer; “how” prompt them to describe a process.

    1. Jean

      Another reason that “How” tends to elicit rather than smother conversation is that it’s less judgy/implies compassion (even if you’re on your last nerve during the conversation). Most people–even those who deliberately made bad choices–feel more comfortable explaining their personal blend of circumstances and decisions if they feel that the other party isn’t just waiting to leap on them with fangs and claws. Yes, bad decisions should have uncomfortable consequences but it’s still best to leave the bad decider in good enough shape to make better choices in future.

  19. Cassie

    My work friend, in HR, tends to be non-confrontational so in a situation like above with Bob not replying until the supervisor is cc’d, she’d just let it go. I’ve been trying to tell her that it doesn’t have to be combative, but just asking [Bob] point-blank would be good to find out what the problem is.

    Recently, I had a related situation where I ended up asking the coworker what I needed to do to ensure XYZ would happen. Part of it is because I want to know her thought process (do I need to fill out a special form? Use a specific ink color?) but the other part was to hold her accountable. From here on out, I assume that if I do what she tells me is the correct procedure, that she will do her part and process things correctly.

  20. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

    I do vendor management and supplier negotiations and this a key negotiating technique also.

    I don’t know if I picked up the habit originally from parenting, being married, managing employees or negotiating (likely negotiating) but it is effective in all of them.

    Plus, it’s face saving. Just yesterday something happened that pissed me off and I assumed that XYZ was done for ABC reason. I took a breath and asked, why did you do XYZ. The reason was a lot more palatable than ABC, and I would have looked hot headed if I jumped all over the incorrect conclusion I’d leaped to on my own + defocused from resolving the actual issue.

    (They still shouldn’t have done XYZ, though! I have some real challenges with this work group, sigh. )

  21. Befuddled Squirrel

    This is excellent advice! It reminds me of a previous job where I was sort of a liaison between project managers and vendors. Sometimes, I had to cc a project manager’s boss in order to get the vendor to respond (the boss was the one signing off on the PO’s). This caused a lot of confusion with project managers who thought I didn’t trust them. I really appreciated it when someone asked me about it.

    Likewise, I’m dealing with a difficult co-worker now, and I think I’m going to try to have a mature face-to-face conversation with him about it. It’s pretty obvious that the issue is our personalities not meshing well. I hope that if we can talk about that openly, we might find a way to work together better.

  22. Labratnomore

    This is great advice. There are several managers where I work that tend to ignore things, or change the processes for the entire group when there is an issue with one person. They think accountability involves major actions and never sit down and discuss the problem with the individual. I have found that simply asking a question works great, even in people who didn’t report to me. Just opening up that communication and figuring out if there is an issue that needs to be addressed that the individual doesn’t know how to deal with, or if they are just being stubborn. It really does work wonders, and it doesn’t involve pointing fingers and placing blame, which everyone here thinks accountability means for some reason.

  23. Hiring Manager

    Great advice. Just get out of your chair and talk to people. It will stop a lot of the passive/aggressive behavior you see with email.

    I had a boss once who sat the next cubicle over and would send me emails about stuff. Drove me crazy.

    1. Hiring Manager

      Another thing I just thought of, their is a great book called “Leadership and Self Deception.” One of the main points is to think of people as people instead of objects. If you can do that most of the time people will respond well to it.

  24. Sarah

    This blows my mind. It’s so simple but so true. And most people are really afraid to do this in a not passive-aggressive way.

    I need to keep this in mind for the future.

  25. Poi

    Yes, sounds like great advice until you get all kinds of BS as excuses. That’s what happened to me, so now I save my time and use the cc: method. It may not be the ideal way to handle but it’s the fastest.

  26. Snarkus Aurelius

    I appreciate this, but I disagree.

    You know how you got reasons for why there was no response unless someone more important was CCed? That person just proved to you that yes he does have the ability to respond even if he has issues. He obviously sets those issues aside when that important person is CCed.

    Here’s the other issue. If he thinks Bob is contradictory or out of his element in making a certain request, then the recipient needs to say that! Not wait until an important person is forced to ask. That’s what I would add to this post.

    For all I know, this person never got my original email, is dead, doesn’t understand what I asked, sexist, or is plain lazy. I don’t know! The reasons are numerous, and if the other person doesn’t tell me what’s going on, I’m going to make that determination myself when I take it up the chain.

    As much as I want to improve things, as a woman, I have to be careful to not turn into the nurturing office hen, always chasing down people to handle otherwise legitimate requests.

  27. Sam

    As an employee, I love this recommendation. I’ve been on the receiving end of some fraught interrogations that accomplished next to nothing. If my employer had used this model, I could have explained what actually happened. Instead, I have to spend twenty minutes defending myself against my boss’s worsts fears and assumptions (e.g., imagine if, in the example above, the boss asked if the employee had not e-mailed Bob back because the employee did not respect the boss or wanted to undermine the department).

    Long story short: I think this model avoids a lot of problems for all parties. Additionally, it lets the employee know that any errors will be handled proportionately.

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