Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Accountability At Work – How To Describe The Gap


The following is a guest piece by Al Switzler.

At some point during the work week, most of us face a gap—the difference between what was expected and what was actually delivered. Gaps, in a nutshell, include violated expectations, broken commitments and bad behaviour. If you’ve felt let down, disappointed or offended, you have experienced a gap. How you deal with gaps makes a huge difference on the quality of relationships and results as a whole.

So how do most respond when faced with a gap? Let’s look at the three options for dealing with gaps and highlight the consequences of each.

1. You see a gap and don’t speak up
You give permission for what’s happening when you remain silent. By saying nothing, you vote for the status quo. Silence is seldom golden; it is almost always interpreted as approval. By not speaking up, you typically act out in other ways.

Your non-verbals, like frowning, rolling your eyes and gossiping, tend to leak out and eventually erode trust and respect. If you let thoughts and emotions build up until you explode, you may say and do things that further hurt the relationship. This leads to the second option.

2. You see a gap and begin the conversation with your emotions and conclusions
If you get angry and say things that are belittling, sarcastic or hurtful, you become part of the problem. The conversation often turns to the gap you just created rather than the gap you are trying to discuss and solve. Over the years, I’ve joked, rather seriously, that there are three major management styles: metaphor, semaphore and two-by-four.

When you face a gap and try to solve it by inappropriately using your position or tenure, you create additional gaps and problems that diminish the relationships and results in any human system.

3. You speak up in a candid and courteous way
My colleagues and I spent 30 years studying master communicators. Through this research, we learned how to effectively speak up in a way that is both 100 percent honest and 100 percent respectful.

As we studied individuals who their peers deemed the most likely to produce results and have strong relationships, we found that these effective communicators consistently practiced specific foundational skills that set them head and shoulders above the rest.

Before I detail the effective skills for holding others accountable, I’ll share some strategies that don’t work. Knowing what to do is essential, but knowing what not to do also helps:

  • Don’t go to silence or violence. When facing a gap, most people tend to either silently ruminate about their frustrations, or they swing to the other end of the spectrum and blow up at the offender. Neither approach will close the gap and solve the problem. So, do you best to avoid your natural tendency towards silence or violence by taking a time out before responding. Do whatever it takes to avoid letting your emotions get the best of you.
  • Don’t use a sandwich. Sandwiching involves placing the “bad news” between two slices of “good news.” For example, “James, is that a new tie? Very attractive. Could you get your report in on time? You’re killing me. Oh, and nice shirt—love the colour.” Though this example is over the top, sandwiching is a very commonly-used strategy. People can sandwich with praise and with small talk. The problem here is that when a sandwich is used, the recipient questions the sincerity and the relationship suffers.
  • Don’t interrogate. Another ineffective strategy to deal with a gap is to ask several leading questions until the other person comes to “own the problem.” It may sound like this, “How are you doing? (Fine) Facing any problems this week? (Nothing big) How about with the budget? (Mostly okay) Like what? (Nothing really big) How about supply costs?” Somewhere during this questioning, the other person has figured out that the questioner is fishing for something. And now we have a game—a fairly non-productive game.

So what do the best do? Describe the Gap.

The master communicators we studied over the years demonstrated time and time again that there is a better way to start an accountability conversation. Here are two important skills to effectively describe the gap:

1. Start with safety
When others feel safe during a conversation, you can talk to almost anyone about almost anything, particularly about important gaps. If there is not enough safety, it’s hard to discuss important issues. The master communicators we studied take several steps to build an environment of safety.

First, they don’t prejudge the other person. They don’t come in with a verbal gotcha. They don’t come in with their facial expression or tone of voice saying, “I have held court in my head in advance and found you guilty.”

Nor do they hold the conversation in public. They get their conclusions and emotions right so they can begin the conversation more like a curious friend who is trying to understand and solve a problem rather than an angry judge who is trying to ignite a guilt trip. And they do it at a good time in a private setting.

2. Lead with an observation and a question
To return to the previous example of James with the attractive tie, let’s see how a master would speak up. “James, we agreed that you’d have the accounting report to me by Thursday at 2:00 pm. I didn’t get it until Friday at 10:00 am. What happened?”

If this statement is said with no disappointment or sarcasm or rolling of the eyes, James can hear the intent behind it, which is, “We had an agreement, there is a gap, and I’m trying to figure out why and how to solve it.” There is no gotcha. There is no prejudgment.

Leading with an observation (the facts) and a question (genuine interest and inquiry) creates space for dialogue to occur—a give and take that leads to a short-term fix as well as a long-term solution.

By using these skills, you will not only close gaps, you will create the kind of culture where accountability is the norm—rather than the exception. And when that happens, you are much more likely to improve relationships and results.

Al Switzler is a leading socialist scientist for business performance and co-author of four New York Times bestselling books, including his latest,“Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior”. He is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.

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