Accountability requires authentic promises

When it comes to building accountability in organizations, what differentiates good from great? Many leaders wrestle with this question. The wrestling typically sounds like this: Why don’t people follow through on their commitments? I don’t like to micromanage, but how else can I ensure things get done?

I love hearing these questions for two reasons. First, they reveal a commitment on the leader’s part to managing effectively and delivering results. It appears as a complaint, but behind the complaint is this deeper commitment to excellence. Second, there is a body of management theory and practice devised specifically to handle this situation. It’s called promise-based management or speech act theory. The basic idea is that human beings make things happen through language. Words don’t just describe reality; they actually bring it into being. There are particular ways to talking—conversations for action—that are the vehicles through which we act. If we want to become more competent at such conversations, it helps to understand the key elements that comprise them. We call these “speech acts.”

Consider, for example, requests. When a manager asks a direct report to produce a report by a particular date, she is making a request. A request is a speech act.  Ideally, the direct report responds to this request in a clear manner (rather than just remaining silent) so that the manager knows whether she can expect the direct report to deliver on the request.

Master difficult conversations

Learn my best tips for staying cool under pressure and elevating your leadership in complex times.


Problem: this often doesn’t happen. Direct reports remain silent or node their heads reluctantly. Yet managers assume that once they have made a request, they can expect their direct report to deliver the agreed result.

I asked him to have that report to me by Thursday at 5pm. Why didn’t he do it? Why did he break his promise?

Here’s why: a request is not the same thing as a promise. It is necessary but not sufficient. For a promise to exist, the other person has to accept the request.

Request + Acceptance = Promise

But I’m the manager. I told him how important this was. And he didn’t say no. Wouldn’t he speak up if he couldn’t commit?

In the ideal world, yes. In the real world, many people don’t feel comfortable declining requests from their manager. The manager often doesn’t invite responses other than Yes (or silence), and the direct report knows that saying No can have negative career repercussions.

So then what do I do?

The most important thing a manager can do is make it safe for direct reports to respond authentically to requests. This means letting them know that there are four legitimate responses to a request: accept, decline, counteroffer, and promise to promise.

  • Accept. When a direct report accepts a request, he makes a commitment to bringing about the desired result by the specified date. A promise now exists.
  • Decline. We lazily refer to this as “No,” but in most relationships, the word “No” by itself is only one of many ways to decline. Other options include: “I’m not able to commit to that.” “I won’t be able to do that.” “I’m booked up until next Monday, so I’m going to decline.”
  • Counter-offer. This sounds like a term of negotiation, and it is. It means, I cannot produce the report by Thursday at 5pm, but I can deliver it by Friday at noon. Will this work for you? Or I can give you everything but the graphs by Thursday at 5pm. Will this work for you?
  • Promise to promise. This is a fancy way of saying I’ll get back to you with my response by X date. Promising to promise gives you time to assess your own time and capacity so you can respond authentically. If your ability to fulfill a promise depends on others delivering something to you, promising to promise gives you time to make a request to them and await their response.

When direct reports feel free to respond in any of these four ways, and when they develop the skill to do so, there is a much greater probability of real accountability. Why? Because a space opens up for genuine, rather than imagined, promises. Sometimes these promises look exactly like the original requests, and sometimes they take different forms through the ensuing negotiation. Either way, there is a mutual agreement between two adult human beings, and this can make a big difference in producing organizational results.

This post describes just one piece of promise-based management—one part of the accountability puzzle. Stay tuned as we lay out the rest piece-by-piece in forthcoming posts.