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The Power of the Near-Deadline Experience

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Why accountability works

Accountability certainly gets results. People often complete tasks when they know they must, but even more so when they know someone is watching — whether it’s their manager, shareholders, customers or friends, not to mention spouses. 

It would be nice if we could always couple superior organisational skills with personal integrity and consistently deliver unwatched.

Thing is, sometimes we can’t. I’ve seen organising skills go AWOL on tasks people would rather avoid. Integrity can also get rubbery when it comes to prioritising.

What accountability brings to the table is a touch of anxiety. In the case of integrity or organisation, it’s often not so much about having some, but more the fear of being seen to lack it. Embarrassment and shame can be great motivators. 

Anxiety has uses

Studies of stressful situations bear this out. Referring to near-death experiences, Oliver Sacks notes the research shows “there is an intense sense of immediacy and reality, and a dramatic acceleration of thought and perception and reaction, which allow one to negotiate danger successfully.” 

This reminds me of exam time. Never one to carefully plan my study time, I was prone to move into cram mode as the deadline drew near. What surprised me was the ease with which fear of failure helped me switch gears. Suddenly I had clarity, organisation skill and a working memory.  

It’s not an approach I necessarily recommend. Useful in some cases but not all. (If you quizzed me about what I’d crammed two months later, I’d struggle to give you an answer.) 

I was well into university before I learned to apply the same anxiety to essays with long lead times. Prior to that the due date would find me knocking on professors’ doors asking for an extension.

What sort of accountability works?

It’s best if it’s honest and open. A supportive dialogue between the manager and the managed gives it traction. A few things help:

For the manager,

  •  make the task realistic. A stretch is good, but asking for the impossible is not. If it doesn’t work, you’ll also be accountable for the lack of a result.
  •  match it to the person’s capabilities. The best results come when the job suits their strengths.
  •  if it involves working on weaknesses, maintain moderate but rolling anxiety. Break projects into achievable steps. Make them accountable at each stage. 

For the managed:

  •  identify the challenges. Be clear about where you feel the project could struggle. 
  •  be candid about your own strengths and weaknesses. This will dial down the negative anxiety of undisclosed fears. If you are going to need help, pave the way now. 
  • embrace the positive anxiety that deadlines inject. It’s a stimulant, not a retardant. 

Successful accountability works to mutual advantage where the manager and the managed are both invested in the outcome. Both contribute to the process of getting a result and both are accountable for it. 

It’s not unusual to feel a little anxiety along the way.

Let it do its job.

Reader Comments (2)

Very original and very useful. Thanks.

December 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Carter

My boss told me I was a dead man walking if I didn't finish my current project by Christmas. I have. Now I know why.

December 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVanillaCafe

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