Change Management

Accountability 101 – Part two

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

This is part two of a series of posts on partner accountability. To recap, in order to achieve accountability, you need to:

  1. Use a buy-in approach. Avoid either coercive or “incentivizing” approaches.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive.
  3. Use multiple interventions, not just one.

In a previous post (, I explained the importance of the buy-in approach. In this post, I want to address the second point, “Be proactive, not reactive.” Once I explain this, I’ll offer you some potent interventions that you can put to use immediately.

Be proactive, not reactive.  Over the years I’ve had many conversations with law firm leaders concerning the lack of partner accountability, and I’ve noticed something interesting about these conversations—virtually all of them seem to emerge on the leader’s radar screen after the deadline has been reached or even passed. In other words, when it comes to accountability, leaders often find themselves looking into the rear view mirror and bemoaning the fact that the partners failed to comply with a request. It’s at that point that they ask, “How can I get my partners to be more accountable?”

It’s better to think about accountability at the time that you make the request, rather than after the partners have failed to comply. In other words, be proactive, not reactive. Your ability to be successful in getting partners to be accountable is very much a function of when you start paying attention to their accountability.

If you wait to address the issue of getting partners to comply until after the deadline has passed, the number of productive strategies for fostering the desired behaviors will have diminished considerably. Moreover, the few strategies that do remain will be mostly coercive in nature, which is just what you don’t want. However, if you address accountability when you first make the request of your partners, then there are quite a number of strategies at your disposal that, collectively, can increase the odds of getting the behaviors you seek.

Proactive Interventions.   Let’s look at some of the most effective strategies. All of these work particularly well in fostering compliance with a request if you apply them at the time of the request and not after the fact. (I’ll use the “turn-in-your-business-plan” example to illustrate, but know that you can use these principles with a whole range of other behaviors for which you’re seeking accountability):

  • Perspective-Taking: We often assume that since “commanding” another person to do something sounds authoritative it will produce results. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, “commanding” has limited effectiveness—it works pretty well when you’re in a crisis, an emergency, or a life-or-death situation like on a battlefield. But in a knowledge-based business like law, when you are requesting behaviors that require the use of intelligence, judgment and nuanced decision-making, a “commanding” approach creates resistance rather than compliance.Perspective-taking is a more effective approach. It involves stepping into the world of the person you’re seeking to influence, to find out what motivates them. See if you can find a way to show them how doing what you’re asking them to do helps get them what they are seeking. This turns a command into a win/win event—but you’ll only succeed at this if you temporarily put your own agenda aside, and explore what the other individual’s motives and needs might be, and look for the alignment of both.
  • Envision the Steps: People who articulate a clear goal or purpose are more successful in achieving results than people who have fuzzy goals or who “play it by ear.” Research shows that you can be even more effective by envisioning the specific stepsthat you plan to take in order to reach your clearly articulated goal.For example, political operatives have utilized this finding to increase the likelihood that voters who say they will vote will actually go out and do so. Volunteers now call voters and ask them not only “Do you plan to vote?”, but also things like “What time of day do you think you’ll vote?” and “How do you plan to get to the polls?” and “Which route do you think you’ll take?” These questions actually serve to mentally rehearse the wanted behavior, which makes it all the more likely that it will take place.
  • Put it in writing: Research shows that people who put a commitment in writing are more likely to follow through on it than if they just verbally assent. Ask your partners to write down their commitment to turn in a business plan. If they add their personal signature, it increases the odds of compliance even more.
  • Make It Public: There is also evidence that when we make a commitment publicly, e.g., to others in our practice group, we are more likely to follow through than if we simply agree privately.
  • Use small groups: If all you do is ask your partners to submit their business plans, then their role is rather passive. You’re waiting for them to move from inaction to action. Consider instead convening a practice group meeting, breaking everyone into smaller groups of no more than 4 people, and having each small group begin the planning process. Each person can throw out ideas to and receive feedback from the others in the group. This has several advantages: It automatically invokes the “Make It Public” heuristic described above; it also helps to invoke the “Envision the Steps” heuristic, also described above. There is also separate research suggesting that people who have already started something are much more likely to complete it than people who have not yet begun. If you use the group experience to kick-start the discussion, and then let them finish it on their own, this increases the likelihood of success. By contrast, if you just send a memo and ask all partners to turn in a plan by a particular date, the “getting started” part can be a barrier.
  • Increase the amount of “meaning”: It’s natural for people to want meaning in their work. When we ask our partners to do things, to take specific actions, they are more likely to carry them out to the extent that doing so appears meaningful to them. By analogy, consider two partners giving the same assignment to an associate: the first partner does so without explaining the context—“research whether Section XYZ in the CFR applies to the following fact situation . . .” while the second partner provides some context and background—“Here is what our client is seeking . . . and here is why this issue matters to the client . . .” and then gives the same assignment. Most associates will be far more motivated by the second approach. Research has shown that there are a number of ways to foster greater meaning in work assignments, and by doing so, you increase the likelihood of psychological buy-in and hence of ultimate performance. See, e.g., Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron, where the author discusses four ways of fostering greater meaning.
  • Remove Obstacles: Sometimes the biggest barrier to getting things done is not an individual’s intention or skills or motivation, but rather real-world obstacles in their environment. If the firm’s document management system is antiquated and it’s tedious for a partner to create a document; or if there’s a procedure to follow that contains redundant steps; or if there’s not enough of a needed resource and it creates a bottleneck—all of these and others like them can prevent even the most well-intentioned individuals from fulfilling their commitments. As a leader, you have a responsibility to remove obstacles, to make it as easy as possible for your partners to do what you’ve asked them to do. It may be time to do an efficiency audit and find out how work flows in your office. There’s an entire field—Process Improvement—that’s devoted to the science and engineering principles around the efficient completion of work tasks.

One important caveat:  Resign yourself to the fact that not everyone will be influenceable. Some individuals, for example, are dispositional procrastinators—it’s their nature not to turn things in on time. (I’m using the example here of turning in a business plan on time, but these ideas apply equally forcefully to almost any other action that you ask your partners to do, whether it has a calendar deadline or not.) You have to make a decision as to which is more important—getting compliance or saving money and other resources. For these individuals, the only way you may succeed in getting their compliance is to help them out by assigning someone to work with them, for example, or investing in a new technology. This can incur significant expenses. If a partner is important enough to a firm, but they don’t comply with actions that partners are expected to comply with, then you may have to invest in paying for a staffer to help them out, or spending money on a technology solution, or using some other strategy to get their compliance despite their own dispositional shortcomings. Occasionally, firms decide that it’s not worth the effort—either you comply or you’re out of here. Far more often, firms either invest in the partner’s success or they overlook the partner’s non-compliance. My advice: Try at all costs not to overlook the partner’s non-compliance. It will very quickly open the door to non-compliance by others without those same dispositional shortcomings.

Next: I’ll be posting at least two more blog posts on this subject. In the next post, I’ll introduce another half-dozen useful interventions, and I’ll discuss why using multiple interventions is vital. And in the final “Accountability 101” post, I’ll introduce 3 “super” strategies that will not only help you achieve accountability, but at the same time will give you a decided competitive advantage. Stay tuned.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

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