The Weight of Accountability:
Back in the good ol’ ‘80s, suit jackets had enormous shoulder pads. I swear those were tailor-made for managers, designed to bear the weight of accountability. As a manager, you’re not just responsible for your own actions, but for everything your team does. Whether it’s meeting goals, following procedures, or maintaining service standards, the success (or lack thereof) rests on your shoulders. Talk about pressure!
With all that responsibility, it’s tempting to slip into micromanagement mode to ensure everything gets done as it should. But that approach has its downsides too. So, what’s the alternative? We often hear about trust in the workplace, so maybe it’s best to kick back, trust your employees, and assume they’ll do their job. Sounds good, right? Well, not so fast. Too little oversight can backfire as well. So, what’s the solution?
A Lesson in Oversight
Let me share a personal lesson on the importance of oversight. Back in the day, I was pretty relaxed about management oversight—maybe a bit too laid back, as it turned out. My theory was simple: if I asked people to do something, they would do it. Plus, I figured if they had been on the job for a while, they knew what they were doing. It seemed like a reasonable approach at first, especially when I had just a handful of employees reporting to me. I had a good sense of what was happening in the workplace.
However, as I advanced and had more direct reports, I placed a lot of trust in my team. Trusting your employees is great, but I learned the hard way not to assume that everyone knows what to do, how to do it, and that they’ll actually do it. Sure, you might be a diligent worker who gets everything done when asked, but don’t assume everyone else is just like you.
Here’s the thing: when things go wrong, your boss won’t care if Sally dropped the ball or if Ted didn’t follow all the procedures. They care about how you fix it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Ouch, right?
Learning the Hard Way
I relocated to a new role, and shortly after our office went through an audit. Unfortunately, we incurred a major irregularity in one of the audit categories. It all stemmed from incomplete reports that landed us in hot water. You can probably guess the outcome—we failed the audit, which not only reflected poorly on myself but also on my boss. Now, here’s the kicker: it was my Assistant Manager’s responsibility to handle those reports. Naturally, I was quite annoyed with her for not fulfilling her duties. As a result, my hopes for a bonus that year vanished into thin air. I mean, come on, she should’ve known better, right?
Advice from a Mentor
I’ll share some valuable advice I received from my boss at the time. He said, “You need to Inspect what you Expect.” (He may have used a few less polite words to drive his point home, and I deserved every one of them.) My response? I wanted to trust my employees to do their job. After all, isn’t making mistakes part of the learning process? But then he asked me how I determined which employees were capable and which ones needed guidance. And yes, making mistakes is part of learning, but is it wise to let your employees fail when a little guidance could help them succeed? That hit me hard. It became clear that my laid-back management style wasn’t the best fit for all employees. However, I still didn’t feel right about micromanaging either.
Here’s the thing about “Inspect what you Expect”—it doesn’t mean suffocating your employees with constant oversight. It’s about setting clear expectations, fostering good communication, and finding the right balance between a lack of management oversight and micromanaging. It’s about being accountable and ensuring your employees know what you expect, why, when, and how to do it.
Let’s dive into a few common business cases to illustrate this better.
Business Cases for Inspect What You Expect
Unreturned Phone Calls
A returned phone call can make all the difference between excellent service and losing a customer. You’d think something as critical as this would be standard practice, right? So why is it that when you call a business and leave a message, you’re left wondering if they’ll ever call you back? It’s a pleasant surprise when you receive a call within a few hours, and even a next-day callback is considered satisfactory. But any longer, and that company ends up on your “don’t do business with” list. So, why such a gap between companies? And sometimes, even between departments within the same company?
Let’s start with expectations.
Firm and Reasonable Expectations
We’re not running a game show here, folks. Employees shouldn’t have to fill in the blanks and play guessing games when it comes to understanding what they’re expected to do. When expectations are clear, there’s a sense of accountability.
So, let’s try setting an expectation and see how employees respond:
The expectation is now firm, but we need to determine if it’s reasonable or not. This is where communication comes into play.
Communication without Fear
Even when expectations are crystal clear, employees may hesitate to commit to action if they feel it’s unreasonable. Many companies find themselves in trouble because either people aren’t allowed to speak up or they’re afraid that voicing an honest opinion is a career-limiting move.
Barking out orders is one way of setting expectations, but I think a different approach may be helpful. Start by discussing with your employees what customers expect. Then, ask for their input on a reasonable time frame to return calls and invite them to share ideas on how you can meet the expectation. Seek their commitment and reach an agreement on how it will be achieved.
Now, I understand that sometimes the company hammer comes down, and negotiation isn’t an option. However, even in those cases, communication is essential. Be honest with your team and let them know when something needs to happen. Discuss the why behind it, talk about how you’ll meet the expectation, and invite their ideas and agreement.
Let’s say you and your team have agreed to return phone calls by the end of the business day. The expectation is clear, and it seems like everyone is on board. But how can you inspect what you expect without hovering over your employees all day long?
Here’s a simple idea: build accountability into your voicemail message. Try something like this:
“Hi, you’ve reached [Your Name]. Please leave a message, and I will return your call no later than the end of the business day.”
Now everyone knows they’re accountable. But you still need to follow up. It doesn’t have to be invasive; a daily check-in for a few weeks can do the trick. Ask your employees, “How is this working for you?” or “What’s getting in the way of making it work?” Give those team members who are doing well a chance to lead, rather than dictating what needs to happen.
Of course, there may be times when you need more direct follow-up, especially if you’re dealing with a few rogue employees. In those cases, you can take an extra step and add a follow-up option to your voicemail message, like this:
“Our commitment is to return your call by the end of the business day. If you do not hear from us within this time frame, please contact Miss Bee, our manager, at [phone number].”
Now, there’s a clear follow-up process, and there are consequences if an employee fails to return calls. I know it may seem like a lack of trust, but be transparent about why you’re taking this action. It’s about maintaining your business standard, delivering consistent customer service, and addressing any performance issues within your team. Remember, it’s a temporary measure until things are sorted out, starting with those tough conversations.
Now, let’s look at an example of setting expectations and follow up using email communication.
Expectations by Email
Ah, email—the necessary evil of the workplace. Sure, it helps you reach many people quickly, but let’s not mistake it for effective communication. Unclear emails that lack discussion or follow-up often lead to unnecessary frustration. However, since email is crucial for efficiency, it’s important to get the results you expect. Let’s explore a couple of examples:
Email number 1
Email number 2
Bob, Jack, and Jill may interpret the first email differently. The deadline for completion is subject to their interpretation of ‘as soon as possible.’ Plus, they might not be prepared for the team meeting, which could lead to some awkward moments. Talk about fuzzy expectations!
Now, the second email provides not only clear expectations but also the why, when, and follow-up. Employees know they need to review the attachment before the team meeting tomorrow. You know to follow up if you don’t receive anything by the 28th. And if you need to check over the project, having everything submitted to you allows for that. Plus, you’ve invited a discussion.
Back to My Oversight Lesson
To wrap things up, let’s revisit my failed audit story.
Now, it would’ve been easy to lash out at my assistant and resort to full-blown micromanagement. But why not follow my mentor’s advice instead?
Reflecting on the Importance of Oversight
First, I needed to determine if my assistant manager clearly understood the procedure and its importance. She was certainly capable and understood, but she had a tendency to cut corners when things got busy. She had never experienced an audit and didn’t fully grasp the implications of not following the process.
Once the expectations were clear, we had a discussion about how she would complete all the reports correctly. While I believed she understood and was committed, my mentor’s lesson still echoed in my ears. I needed some follow-up to feel confident that she wouldn’t cut corners again. When she said, “Got it, I’ll do it right,” I responded with, “How will I know?” She acknowledged her mistake and realized she needed to make a few deposits in the trust account. She also wanted assurance that her work would be audit-proof. The follow-up plan she proposed was even stricter than what I would’ve implemented.
Oversight without Overkill
Let’s face it, it’s impossible to have your hand in everything and ensure that every employee is doing their job perfectly. When you’re new to a role, it’s especially important to get to know your employees’ capabilities. It’s okay to have some extra oversight initially. Let them know you want a good sense of how everything runs. Once you’re comfortable, you can take a back seat and let them drive.
Remember, “Inspect what you Expect” is all about balance. If you never follow up, you’ll have no control over what’s happening around you. On the other hand, too much oversight can make your employees feel like you don’t trust them. Find those critical tasks that require oversight, maintain clear communication, and follow up where it makes sense. You’ll feel in control without being controlling.
Keep inspecting what you expect, managers, and find that sweet spot of accountability and trust. Your team will appreciate it, and your business will thrive.
Am I mindful of finding the right balance between oversight and micromanagement?
Do I clearly communicate expectations to my team members, ensuring they understand what needs to be done and why?
Am I actively engaged in following up on critical tasks and projects to ensure they are being executed effectively?
Do I encourage an environment of open communication where employees feel comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns about expectations?
Head over to the Grow page to make a commitment for improving your management oversight.