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Improving Communication through Written Accountability

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“Talk is cheap,” the expression goes. It’s meant to mirror another common sentiment that “Actions speak louder than words.” But we do need to have conversations at work, so how can we use them to get things done?

I think it’s essential to recognize that while people say lots of things they don’t mean, most of the time we do say things that we believe to be true. If you’re talking about the past, you’re trying to give a fair accounting of what happened. If you’re talking about the present, you are attempting to outline the situation as you see it. And if you’re talking about the future you are laying out your own plans and the expectations you have for the plans of others.

It’s the last one that gets us into trouble. We often say what we will do, but we don’t actually ever do it. What’s going on?

Written Plans: Walt Disney

© Flickr user Orange County Archives

There’s a ton of psychology at work that explains why people have the best of intentions. Blogger George Altman describes part of this phenomenon in a piece on the intention-action gap.

When we want to make a change in our lives, it usually starts with an intention that can be either an articulated expression of some desire or a privately held thought. For example, I might say that I want to lose weight or, think that I want to work on changing the nature of my relationship with a colleague at work..but the weight stays on and the relationship doesn’t change. What stops me?

In other words, there’s a gap between intention and action.

There’s lots of research about willpower and all kinds of advice for how to make your goals a reality. But what about when other people say they will do something? How can you get your colleagues, your boss, your vendors or your customers to do what they promise?

The secret is writing.

Writing it Down

© Flickr user Toshiyuki IMAI

When you write down what’s being said, it becomes more real. Here are some techniques for getting writing into the the accountability conversation.

1. Apologize For Your Imperfect Memory

There’s something about our culture that means people just cannot stand to let an apology go unnoticed. If you say “I’m really sorry, I need to write this down so that I remember what we talked about” you will almost certainly gain the attention of the other person.

2. Email What You Wrote

It’s great to capture a promise made in a conversation. But sending it back to the person who made it via email takes it from being uncured cement to a solid foundation. Ask for confirmation: “I just want to make sure that I have this right—you said…”

3. Ask About That Email

Reach out to the person who you are keeping accountable and ask them if they appreciated the email you sent. You may want to do this in person, rather than over email itself. The purpose of asking is to find out if your tone was misinterpreted. If they think you are micromanaging them, you’ve gone too far. But if they reference the work they are going to do, you’re on target.

4. Ask Others to Take Turns

Here’s where written accountability turns from a form of gentle babysitting into a powerful workplace system. Now that you’ve captured the notes and written the email, ask other people if they’d like to try it. But there’s one more secret….

5. Keep Taking Your Own Notes

If you want to improve accountability by writing things down, show others that you are working to improve your own accountability. You’re not just expecting them to do it for you.

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. -David Brim

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 19 hours ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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