When was the last time you were accountable for delivering something but didn’t have control over essential parts of the process? Do you recognize that sinking feeling of depending on someone for something that could hugely impact your success, reputation, or compensation? It’s not the best feeling, is it?!? I get so frustrated when managers leave shared accountability and I’ve written about the alternatives, but if you’re stuck with it, you’re stuck with it.

While having a gap between accountability and authority is unpleasant, it’s not uncommon. Here are a few examples:

You’re the sales manager accountable for the pitch to ACME, but finance owns the pricing decisions.

You’re a product manager responsible for growing market share, but you’re dependent on engineering to build new features in your product.

You’re a marketing specialist tasked with delivering a new lead generation campaign, but you need someone in the security team to approve your new vendor.

There’s probably some version of this that applies to your role. You’re the one that higher-ups will look at if the pitch fails, the product fizzles, or the leads dry up. So you’ve got all the accountability without the authority, all the load without the leverage, all the culpability without the clout.

When Accountability and Authority Don’t Match

When you find yourself in a situation where your accountability and authority don’t line up, there are a few things to do to increase the likelihood that your colleague will deliver.

Before You Begin

While it’s tempting to send an email request and then sit back, assuming you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for when you need it, it’s a low-probability strategy. So instead, when your manager assigns you a new task that requires others to do some essential component, take the time to set yourself up for success.

Talk with Your Manager

First, clarify your manager’s expectations. Ask what you’re expected to deliver and the why, when, and who questions that will give you the context for your work. Make sure you understand fully what’s expected before passing requirements on to others. Enquire whether the other parties are already informed about this task or if you’ll be expected to bring them up to speed.

Talk with the Responsible Colleague

When you approach your colleague, start in curious mode. Focus on their reality, not yours. First, share the requirements and ask them to give you a sense of what it will take to meet them. See if they have any questions or need you to clarify before proceeding. Next, ask what else they have on their plate and where your task fits their priorities.

This is also a good time to share the stakes. Communicate the importance of your task, where it fits in with other initiatives, how it affects various stakeholders, and the ramifications if you cannot deliver.

One tip. If the person you depend on reports to someone different than you, it’s best to have this conversation in the presence of your manager and theirs. If your managers aren’t aligned about your task’s priority, you will have a tough time getting what you need when you need it.

Along the Way

Now that you’re underway don’t disappear and hope for the best. Instead, use light-touch approaches to keep things on track.

Let Software Do the Nagging

When you’re counting on someone else to deliver, it’s easy to be a little heavy-handed. However, breathing down someone’s neck is likely to irritate them, not motivate them, so try to use a less invasive approach.

Create a central repository in some form of project management software. Use it to document the plan, milestones, and deadlines and allow the notifications in the software to remind your colleague about looming deadlines rather than nagging them yourself.

Make it Safe to Share Challenges

One thing that might require a more personal touch than project management software can provide is identifying any potential roadblocks. To ensure you’ve got plenty of warning and time to adapt, check in with your collaborators to get a sense of their progress. Ask, “Where are things at,” “What challenges are emerging,” “What do you need to be able to deliver,” or “What help do we need?”

If your questioning does uncover issues, ensure you express gratitude that the person is sharing their concerns rather than showing frustration. If you’re accountable, it’s always better to know the issues than to have them surprise you at the last minute.

If you’re in a position to resolve the issues, remove the roadblocks, or otherwise remedy or remediate them, great! If not, as the accountable person, you’re the one that might have to go looking for help. Don’t be afraid to take concerns to your manager or even the other person’s manager in search of additional resources, problem-solving support, or revised expectations.

If It’s Not Working

Have the Uncomfortable Conversation

You’re accountable for completing the task, so if your colleague has stopped delivering, you need to talk with them about what’s going on and give them feedback about how their performance affects you. Remember the structure of good feedback:

  • Orient to the Situation: in the plan, you committed to having the code done on Tuesday
  • Describe their Behavior: It’s Thursday, and you haven’t finished it yet
  • Share the Impact: I’m getting worried that I’ll only have three days for quality testing
  • Hand Over Accountability: What would it take to get this by the end of the day?

Escalate For Advice

If your feedback doesn’t get you anywhere, you might need to involve your manager in getting things moving. Remember, this is all about taking accountability, so you don’t want to go to your boss, throw up your hands, and dump the accountability for the project in their lap. Instead, share what’s been happening and ask them to coach you on the next steps or approaches you might try.

The magic of asking for advice is that you’re showing that you’re still accountable and willing to learn and change tack, but you’re also highlighting to them that there’s an issue. That might encourage them to keep a closer eye or even add some support if required.

There’s no foolproof way to guarantee that your colleague will deliver, but investing time upfront to ensure everyone has the same expectations, keeping track of progress and establishing early warning signals of trouble, and using feedback and escalation if required to help get things back on track will give you the best shot at delivering what you signed up for.

Epilogue. Once you survive the situation and deliver what you were accountable for, take the time when there’s less pressure to build relationships with your colleagues that will strengthen your connection, bolster empathy, and foster trust so that the next time you’re counting on them, it will be all the more likely that they’ll go out of their way to deliver. My favorite proverb about this is

“Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to dig a well.”

And if you don’t manage to deliver, you’ve still got options. Check out these ideas for what to do if you fail but still want to be seen as accountable.

More on This: Accountability Miniseries

Most organizations emphasize accountability because it’s so important to driving results. Unfortunately, our notions of accountability and how to foster it are often misguided. This series delves deep into accountability from the perspective of an individual contributor who wants to demonstrate that they’re accountable and of a manager who wants to bolster accountability on their team.

Additional Resources

Video: We NEED to Change the Way We Talk About Accountability

How to Show That You’re Accountable

Pass the Accountability

How to Decrease Accountability

Other Advice: Doholis Lambert. Responsibility Without Authority: Dysfunctional Delegation