When I work with leaders, it’s common for challenges to surface around accountability. Typically, it sounds something like: “my people aren’t doing what they say they’ll do—or at least not as well as they should and not when they should.” The question most frequently asked is: “How do I get them to be more accountable?”

In discussion, it almost always becomes clear that this is the wrong question. Most of the people we work with don’t set out to do a poor job or to let others down. So, what’s really happening when teams aren’t working well? When individuals aren’t seeing their commitment through?

One possibility is that what seems like a lack of accountability is actually a lack of clarity. Clarity is established largely through language—and most of us are quite imprecise in our language.

Fernando Flores, a thought-leader who works on leadership and communication, suggests that, at the end of the day, there are a few “speech acts” that we use—and we need to use them well if we are going to build thriving organizations. Language creates reality. Two of the five speech acts that Flores describes are requests and promises (or commitments). Understanding these better can create greater clarity, better communication and coordination, and, ultimately, significantly improved accountability.

Let’s start with the most basic question: What’s a promise? I ask this question at the start of my workshops and the answer that emerges is that any time we assure someone (including ourselves) that we will do something, we are making a promise. A promise is a powerful, even sacred commitment.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and contemplating this definition, considering the power of our promises—and the expectations we create when we say “yes.” I suggest this because almost all of us, at least sometimes, say yes without full commitment. Perhaps there are caveats that we fail to share—dependencies that we do not control. For example, we might promise we will deliver something to a client by a particular date. If we don’t ensure, before making that promise, that all the people who are required to support that commitment can support that date—it’s a “shallow” promise. We also make shallow promises when we commit without knowing exactly what we committed to.

In addition to shallow promises there is a second type of promise—a “criminal” promise. These are the promises we make and have no intent of delivering on. We typically make these because we are afraid to say no or to ask the questions that would enable us to make a stronger promise. Sometimes our “criminal” promises are made because saying yes is easier than saying no. We often make criminal promises to those closest to us—promising to be home for dinner, or to free ourselves from work for the weekend.  

The third and final category of promises is strong promises. When we are clear that we are making a commitment and what that commitment requires, and we know that we can deliver—then we can make a strong promise. It’s important to add that even strong promises may need to be negotiated—circumstances can change.

One of the most powerful ways for leaders to ensure that the promises our people make are strong, is to model the behavior of strong promises. Are we making commitments we can keep? Are we keeping them? Are we letting people know when we can’t? For many leaders, the answer we discover when we ask ourselves these questions, is not always. We don’t respond to an e-mail in the time frame we promised. We leave our people waiting for longer than we said we would. This is the “search inside yourself” moment. What commitments are you making and not keeping? To whom are you making shallow or even criminal promises? Think beyond work. Think about the promises you make to your family, to yourself.

The second way for us to improve the quality of promises and commitments in our teams is to make effective requests—and teach our team members to do the same. Here are some questions to consider when we make requests:

  1. Are we clear who we are asking? Do they know they are being asked? (A group email with a request to five people is not a clear request.)
  2. Are we clear on exactly what we need—and by when? (Being vague in our requests is a recipe for shallow commitments.)
  3. Do we make it safe for the person we’re making a request of to clarify the request and to say no or negotiate? If not, it’s not a request. It’s a demand.
  4. Do we confirm that the request is understood and the person we are making it of has said yes? Or do we just assume this has happened?

As you think more about the quality of your commitments and requests, you’ll see many opportunities for improvement to accountability. I’m confident of this because that’s what happened to me—and has happened to everyone I’ve shared this with. We just aren’t that careful. And the results we get often are a result of not being careful.

If we model strong promises and make clear requests, we will begin the work of creating a culture of accountability. If we are transparent about what we’re doing and teach our teams how to make a clear request and what a strong commitment is, we’ll keep that work going. Along the way, we will be demonstrating respect to those we work with and embodying the value of integrity.

If, as you’ve read this, you thought that it doesn’t sound that hard—you’re right. It’s about consistently being aware and, moment-to-moment, doing the right thing. The results can be amazing.