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Managing Expectations: Five Ways to Ensure Co-workers Follow Through

By Laura Stack

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”–Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England during World War II

Not so long ago, it seemed most Americans had dropped the word “accountability” from their vocabularies–or perhaps had never learned it. When things went awry, it was never the fault of those responsible, because they refused to be held responsible. Even politicians would admit only that “mistakes were made”, hiding behind the passive voice instead of admitting their errors.

I feel we’ve mostly gotten beyond this style of double-think, as the Millennials and post-Millennials–those so vilified by the previous generations of workers before they took over the economy–have jettisoned old, failed ideals and taken responsibility for all aspects of their own fates. The establishment seemed taken aback by workers unwilling to sacrifice their own happiness for businesses prepared to abandon them for expediency’s sake, and many of the older generations of workers are, to some extent, still in denial. But despite their dire predictions, the economy was more vibrant than ever until recently, when we hit the painful, unexpected roadblock of the COVID-19 pandemic that, at the time of this writing, we’ve yet to recover from.

While personal responsibility and accountability in the workforce seem on the rebound, you may still face some resistance from co-workers who, for whatever reason, have trouble meeting their commitments. Here are some suggestions for lighting a fire under them.

  1. Set clear expectations for what you need and when. Calmly discuss your needs with the person(s) in question. You’re always justified in doing so if you can’t proceed without input from other team members–especially when there’s no way around the person who could potentially slow you down. In some cases, you can shift to other tasks while you wait; but if you can’t, don’t be afraid to lay down the law…politely. This may prove difficult to enforce if you’re not in charge, but that’s no reason not to make your needs heard by your upstream teammates. If they still fail to meet them, the fault isn’t yours.

  1. Share schedules. Scheduling software exists for a reason, and most businesses of any size have enterprise servers where teams can easily access shared programs. Set mileposts for everyone on the team in black-and-white, so everyone knows their tasks and deadlines and who needs to hand off their piece of the project to the next person when you’re not able to work on all pieces simultaneously.

  1. Set hard deadlines. Get everyone on the team involved in the planning, and agree on hard-and-fast, drop-dead deadlines for each part of the project. These deadlines should clarify commitment dates; it’s up to each team member, as an experienced worker and adult, to determine how much work they must do daily, at minimum, to finish the task or project in time. This will make the commitments more real to the team members, making them more likely to hit the deadlines.

  1. Offer help when needed. Projects sometimes develop bottlenecks for unexpected reasons. If a particular individual seems overwhelmed or is slowing everyone else on the team down, it may be to your advantage to step in and help them catch up. They may have hit some kind of procedural or software snag or may have experienced some personal event that has wrecked their productivity temporarily. They may reject your help, but at least you can say you tried, and you may be able to help them behind the scenes anyhow.

  1. Set clear consequences for the team members who fail to meet their commitments to you. Let the team member know what will happen to the project if they don’t come through. This works best if you’re the team lead, of course. If they do come through, you can reward them; if they don’t, explain that there will be negative repercussions, up to and including termination (depending on the severity of the task and/or the failure). If you’re a simple co-worker, you can’t be so strict, but you can use a weaker version by making very clear how their failure will affect your work, and by extension, the whole team. If nothing else, maybe you can guilt them into complying.

In the End…

In the business world, we’re nothing if we’re not good team members. You sometimes have to remind people of this, whether they like it or not. Work isn’t a popularity contest. So rather than curse the darkness, light the candle of awareness at work, letting the people you depend on know how much you depend on them and why.


Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online. ©2020 Laura Stack.

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