Dear Crucial Skills,
How do you hold your peers accountable when you don’t have the support of their supervisor, or in some instances the support of your own supervisor?
I work with a person in a cross-functional team who is disorganized (he loses things on a regular basis and asks me to resend things), unprepared (we show up for a meeting and he’s still setting up equipment so we have to wait to start the meeting), and shows up to meetings late or doesn’t show up at all. Sometimes, when I come into his office, he is working on a project for his personal company, but he continues to complain that he has too much work and can’t get our projects done.
Because of the workflow, I field a steady stream of complaints about him where I’m literally left saying, “What do you want me to do? I’m not his boss.” I’ve tried discussing things with him directly and I’ve tried discussing things with his supervisor, but no one will hold this person accountable and I’m not allowed to. What do I do?
Out of Ideas
Dear Out of Ideas,
You’re off to a good start. I’m impressed that you have attempted to directly address the issue with him and with his supervisor. Nice job.
To help you think about any remaining options, let me suggest five levels of influence you can use when dealing with problem peers. Use them in order. In other words, don’t move to #2 until you’ve effectively attempted #1, and so on.
1. Content. The first time you have problems, present them immediately and directly to the individual involved. Don’t wait for it to happen again. Don’t wait until it really ticks you off. Do it right away. Remember also to do it skillfully—create safety, master your stories, etc. For example, the “content” conversation you might have would address “You did not send me the report by Wednesday as you committed. What happened?”
2. Pattern. When it is clear that a pattern is emerging, you must have an entirely different kind of conversation that leads to different kinds of solutions. Many people misunderstand pattern conversations. They think it simply means addressing, “You failed to get me the report on time the last four weeks in a row” as opposed to, “You got the report to me late again this week!” This is true. You must be sure to raise the right issue, but you must also be sure the agreements you come to at the end address the true nature of the pattern. For example, “I’m sorry, I have been really irresponsible. I will do better next week. I promise!” is insufficient.
You must stay in the conversation longer to understand what general causes there are and to develop solutions you believe will address those general causes. For example, if the person is disorganized, what will they do to get more organized? If they are overcommitted, how will they manage that? If they see this as a low priority task, what will change next time? If the only thing that changes is they want to avoid another crucial conversation with you, you’ll get temporary motivation but nothing sustainable. Be sure to solve the pattern problem.
3. Relationship. This is also a conversation you have directly with the individual. Notice we’re at influence level three and we haven’t had to involve anyone else yet. However, the nature of the conversation changes each time. At this level, you are no longer trying to solve the pattern. Rather, you are discussing ways to restructure the relationship around it. The person has repeatedly demonstrated an inability and/or unwillingness to keep prior commitments. At this level you must say, “I need a different way of working together—one that does not put you on my critical path. I want to be clear that this isn’t the way I want it. I would much prefer to work in the way we have attempted, but if conditions change to restore my trust, let’s go back to that relationship. However, until I have that trust, here is what I will need to do . . .”
Relationship problems are often solved by developing new boundaries or roles that work for you. The key is that these new boundaries must be explicitly shared with the other person—not simply taken behind his or her back. For example, we often start doing others’ work as a workaround to their weaknesses without letting them know we are doing this. That is acting out rather than talking out the problem. Influence level three is candidly discussing with them the steps you will take to ensure you have control of your destiny. For instance, if part of the problem is someone’s abusive behavior, this could include letting him or her know that until you see changes you will not have contact with him or her. Relationship conversations are often the level at which you must involve other stakeholders—the person’s boss, your boss, HR, etc. But again, you must let the person know that you have exhausted your options and will need to be honest with those who have responsibility to address the concerns—or who may be affected by them.
4. Upward Influence. Level four is sometimes needed as part of level three. Let’s say the person on your cross-functional team was responsible for logistics and you are at the point of using other resources to get that done. You should now hand the influence problem over to the person who should own it next—your coworker’s boss. Don’t do it in the form of blame or to vilify the person. In fact, do it gracefully, acknowledging that you may be part of the problem in a way you weren’t aware of and are open to feedback if the person’s boss discovers something you had not seen.
At the same time, let him or her know what you’ve attempted to do to solve it and why you need to take the steps you’re taking. If your boss will be affected by the actions you are taking, you may need to involve him or her as well. Once again, be careful that you are not engaging in gossip or trying to undermine the other party. Check your motives. Simply let others own the part of the problem they need to own, while taking steps you need to take. Let them know the natural consequences of the problem—without overstating them—and why your response is necessary for your own quality of work life and results.
5. Renegotiate Work. The fifth level of influence is needed if the problem persists and your coping strategies fail to help you ensure a reasonable quality of work life as well as control over your results. If this happens, you may need to have a “relationship” conversation with your boss. Perhaps your boss and others have failed to address the accountability problem with the other person in a way that continues to cause problems for you, you may choose to ask for a different assignment, more organizational distance from the individual, or reduced commitments on your shared project. You may say, “I can continue to work with Jack, but I will need more flexibility on our deadlines due to the unpredictability of his contributions.”
Sometimes, the best way to influence your boss or others in leadership positions is to help them experience the consequences of the problem you are facing. Busy people don’t like to take on new problems, so it’s often the case that when you share your accountability concerns they minimize them by avoiding thinking about them in more visceral ways. Level five lets them experience it more palpably as you communicate what you will need in order to work in this low accountability reality.
None of the above advice is a magic pill—it is simply the logical process you need to pursue in order to take responsibility for your own life and your own results. If you do so in a 100 percent respectful and 100 percent honest way, you will have far more influence than you might think. And if thi
ngs don’t improve to your satisfaction, you must take responsibility for either accepting a situation you can no longer influence or removing yourself from it.
I wish you all the best.