Crucial Accountability QA

How to Hold Employees Accountable Without Micromanaging

The following article was first published on November 2, 2004.

Dear Crucial Skills,

As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. If I’ve ever had to have a crucial conversation, I feel I can only do so with extreme delicacy. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Dr. Delicate

Dear Dr. Delicate,

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimizes collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement—from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person.

The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as, “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”—a choice where we see only two options—both of them bad. For example, “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.” In reality, there is often a third, better alternative; you can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?”

Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship . . . you can get both.

Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation.

When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened—I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best Wishes,


BS Guys

Does Santa Make You Selfish?

In our newly released video, Santa’s Elf holds out two tantalizing foil-wrapped chocolate Christmas bears to Emma and Alex. One chocolate bear is a wonderfully chubby eight inches tall. The other is tiny—the size and girth of a clothespin. “Sorry,” the Elf says, “we only have one big bear left.” He turns to Emma, the subject child: “Here, you choose—which do you want?” Will Emma take the big one and stiff Alex, or in the spirit of the season, will she decide it’s more blessed to give than to receive?

Words matter. A lot. The words you choose to frame a problem powerfully influence the way you and others feel about it.

For example, if Ethan takes a cupcake without asking, a parent who begins with, “Ethan, you disobeyed Mommy,” sets up an entirely different conversation than one who says, “Ethan, you have broken my trust.” A boss who says, “We have an unacceptable error rate,” has framed the problem as meeting the boss’ expectations. One who says, “Our error rate is putting patient lives at risk,” has framed it as a moral imperative.

Research shows that small tweaks in verbal frames can provoke resentment or invite commitment about the same issue! Reviewing that research made the VitalSmarts research team wonder, “What about Christmas?” Each of us could think of Christmas mornings where kids had behaved like ravenous hyenas, tearing through wrapping paper to get at the next indulgence. Yet, we could also recall instances of sweet, selfless generosity, where a child sacrificed hard-earned cash to bring a smile to someone they loved.

After surveying our various memories, we were left asking, “Overall, does Christmas make us naughtier or nicer? Or is it the way we talk about Christmas that determines the influence of the season?”

So we invited roughly sixty kids, ages six to eight, to a Christmas party. After enjoying a rollicking good time decorating, eating cookies, and playing holiday games, the children were invited to visit with Santa, two at a time. The first child was a subject, and the second was a confederate—our secret scientific helper!

In the first condition, Santa used his age-old script, “What do you want for Christmas?” Kids have been preparing for this dialogue since they were in diapers. All of them were armed with a Christmas shopping list for the Jolly Old Elf. When they finished, Santa said, “Thank you for visiting me! If you’ll go over there and see my elf, he has a surprise for you!” The kids gleefully complied. The pair of tots faced the elf who announced sadly, “Oh no! I’m almost out of big chocolate bears. I only have one big one left. One of you can have the large one and the other will get the small one.” The elf then turned to the subject child and said, “Here—you choose. Which do you want?” Few deliberated for long. Over two-thirds snatched the big one. One little guy didn’t even wait for the elf to finish. When his eyes landed on the gargantuan bear he seized it, exclaimed “I’m out of here!” and fled.

In the second condition, the children had the exact same experience but with one small change—just a few words. Santa greeted the kids warmly and asked, “What gifts do you want to give this Christmas?” Most of the kids couldn’t even hear him! They began to recite wish lists like a kidnapper dictating ransom terms. Santa would smile and say, “Those sound like great wishes! And are there any presents you want to give to someone?” After two or three attempts to clarify his bizarre departure from the sacred Santa liturgy, their eyes would widen, and they’d offer a few thoughtful ideas.

Now came the moment of truth. The subject and confederate would approach Santa’s helper. The elf would sadly announce the tragic chocolate bear situation. He would offer the choice to the subject child. This time, not only did most kids answer more slowly, they responded more generously. One little girl removed both bears from the elf’s hands, examined them closely, reading the label, “Hmm . . . melted chocolate. Hmm . . . . Here—you take the big one!” She smiled, gripped the little bear and skipped out of the room. Simply changing the Christmas “frame” influenced over forty percent of kids to behave more graciously!

When you’re talking about problems at work, decisions with family members, or goals with colleagues, the words you choose to frame the issues are very influential. We at VitalSmarts hope the words you use this holiday season will bring you great joy, meaning, and connection with those you love.



Framing the Holidays

New research by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield shows that a few small changes in how parents talk about Christmas makes a huge difference in whether Christmas traditions make kids selfish or generous.

“We wanted to find out whether parents were unwittingly undermining their own goals,” said Maxfield. “Specifically, we wondered if the way parents talk about Christmas has a significant influence on whether kids become self-centered or empathic during the holidays.”

In the study conducted in October, twenty-seven percent of parents said they talk to their children more about giving than getting, yet eighty-six percent want their holiday traditions to support generosity and gratefulness.

So how can parents and families close the gap between what we say and what we do? Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield offer the following six tips:

1. Take children shopping for presents they will give.

2. Expect them to use some of their own money to buy gifts.

3. Involve kids in doing some kind of charitable work to get into the holiday spirit.

4. Help kids write a “gift” list as well as a “wish” list—detailing things they want to make or do for those they love.

5. Collect presents for a “Sub for Santa” or other holiday giving cause.

6. Make a donation of a valued toy or other possession for someone less fortunate.

View the results of our study in the infographic below or download a copy for yourself.