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Kate Zabriskie


Why Some People Drop the Ball and What to Do About It

Strategies to retake control, push for greater accountability, and regain control of your sanity

Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2021 - 12:02

From time to time, everyone misses a deadline, forgets an obligation, or fails to meet a commitment. We’re human, and it happens. For most of us, failure is followed by an immediate effort to right the situation.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast. “Most of us” excludes a special cohort: those who chronically disappoint and routinely fail to meet their obligations. They say one thing and do another, they agree to deadlines they have no intention of meeting, and they commit to deliverables that will never materialize.

—He didn’t get the shipments out... again! Makes me crazy. That guy never follows through.
—She said I’d get a promotion, so where is it? I’ve been waiting for three years.
—All talk and no action. That phrase describes that group in a nutshell. They pay lip service to teamwork, but they never pull their weight.

If we’re lucky, once we identify members of this tribe, we can put a healthy distance between ourselves and them. If not, there are some proven strategies we can use to retake control, push for greater accountability, and regain control of our sanity.

Accountability strategy one: Confirm a shared understanding
Be sure you and the other person have a shared understanding of your expectations. Does the fellow shipping your packages understand what’s required? If so, how do you know? Did he say “yes” in a way he’d hoped you would figure actually meant “no?” Did he agree because you are in a position of authority, and he didn’t want to disappoint you in the moment? Did he know that you meant today and not just sometime soon? Before taking other action, it’s important to make sure you and the other person have a shared understanding.

Accountability strategy two: Look for roadblocks
Once you are sure that you and the other person have a similar grasp of the requirements, look for roadblocks. Is the promotion you’ve looked for no longer available because of circumstances outside of the promiser’s control? Does the person boxing shipments have someone else demanding his time? If you discover it’s the latter, your frustration is focused on a symptom and not the root cause of the problem. Take the time to do a little digging. You’ve got to focus your effort on changing the underlying belief and make a case for your point of view.

Accountability strategy three: Break steps into smaller pieces
Even with a shared understanding and no obvious roadblocks, sometimes people don’t follow through because they get overwhelmed. When this happens, it may make sense to break the task into smaller pieces: “Bobby, how many packages do you think you can have ready by 1? Great, I’ll check in with you then. It’s important that we meet our shipping deadlines because our customers count on us to live up to our promises. When we meet this afternoon, we can see where you are. How does that sound?”

Accountability strategy four: Make use of up-front contracts
If there are no roadblocks preventing the other person from following through and small steps aren’t solving the problem, it’s time to explore up-front-contract language: “If you can get these shipments out by 3 today, I can mark your work as complete.” “If your team can meet the deadlines we’ve agreed to, we will have what we need to move the project to the engineering team.” The pattern is simply, “If you/your team can, then I/we will.” For example, “If you can clean the odd-numbered rooms, I can take care of the evens. That should split the work fairly.”

Accountability strategy five: Add a next step
If the up-front contract doesn’t yield results, it’s time to add an or-else component: “If you can get these shipments out by 3 today, I can mark your work as complete. If I’m unable to do that, we can set up a meeting with Brian to let him know that we’re notifying customers that their packages will arrive late.” “If your team can meet the deadlines we’ve agreed to, we will have what we need to move the project to the engineering team. If we can’t move forward, we’ll have to escalate the schedule change to senior leadership, so they are aware of the schedule slip.”

Accountability strategy six: Consider cutting your losses (if you can)
From time to time, you may encounter a customer, colleague, or someone else who fails to follow through no matter what you do. When that happens, you may decide to cut your losses: “Matt, when we spoke about arriving by 9, I explained that if you could make that happen regularly, you could continue your employment. For the last two weeks, you’ve arrived after 9 more than half the time. For that reason, we’re going to let you go.”

Accountability strategy seven: Take back control
What if you’re not in a position to fire someone or walk away from a relationship? In these situations, it’s important to realize you are making a choice: “I’m not getting the promotion. I know this. I’m going to continue to work here because it’s close to my house, and the schedule is flexible.” “Jane is chronically late, and she’s the owner’s daughter. Although I’ve brought the issue to his attention, he’s chosen not to act. I need a job, and this is the one I have now. I choose to work around this instead of walking out the door and having nothing.”

And that’s the lowdown on the letdown. Few people enjoy disappointment or appreciate someone who chronically drops the ball. Sometimes better communication can fix the problem, and sometimes up-front contracts paired with consequences can make things right. If all else fails, a little positive self-talk can help if no other solution does the trick.


About The Author

Kate Zabriskie’s picture

Kate Zabriskie

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.