Let’s say you’re working with the owner of a real estate firm in a rural community.

“The woman who works the front desk is constantly coming to work late,” the owner explains.
“Have you talked to her?” you ask.
“Repeatedly” is the response.
“And then what happens?” you continue.
“She’s on time for a few days, maybe even a week, and then
she starts coming in late again.”
“Then what do you say to her?”
“I tell her that she’s late and that I don’t like it.”

This situation presents a terrific example of what separates accountability experts from everyone else. The owner has the courage to converse with the desk clerk. That separates him from the worst. However, the fact that he returns to the same problem each time puts him far below top performers. This is an indication that there is some other infraction that needs to be discussed: the front desk clerk isn’t living up to her commitments, she’s disrespecting company policy, etc.

As you continue your conversation with the realtor, you say,“Obviously, the fact that your clerk comes in late is the behavior that catches your attention, and that’s what you talk to her about. But what is the real issue here?”
“I’m not exactly sure. I do know that it’s starting to bug me a lot—more than it probably should.”
“Are you becoming more upset because the problem’s escalating?”
“Not really,” the broker responds hesitantly.
Finally, you ask, “When you’re angry enough to complain to your wife, coworkers, or best friend about this repeated infraction, how do you describe it?”

A light goes on in the broker’s eyes as he excitedly states, “It’s killing me that she’s taking advantage of our relationship. She’s my neighbor, she’s helped me out a lot, and now she doesn’t do what I ask because she knows that I won’t discipline her since we’re good friends. At least that’s how it feels to me.”

That’s the violated expectation the broker needs to confront. He’s becoming increasingly upset with each instance because he’s never dealt with the issue that is bothering him. Being late is the frozen tip floating above the chilly waters. Taking advantage of a friendship is the iceberg itself.

The ability to reduce an infraction to its bare essence takes patience, a sense of proportion, and precision.

First, you have to take the time to unbundle the problem. People are often in too much of a hurry to do this. Their emotions propel them to move quickly, and speed rarely leads to careful thought.

Second, while sorting through the issues, you have to decide what is bothering you the most. If you don’t, you’ll end up going after either the wrong target or too many targets.

Third, you have to be concise. You have to distill the issue to a single sentence. Lengthy descriptions of violated expectations only obscure the real issue. If you can’t reduce a violation to a clear sentence before you talk, the issue almost never becomes more understandable and focused as a conversation unfolds.

Accountability issues are almost never contained in the behavior of the offender. They’re much more likely to be a function of what happens afterward. The problem lies in the consequences. For example, a staff specialist who works for you has promised to complete a financial analysis by noon. She miscalculates how long it will take and delivers the job to you three hours late. The errant behavior, being late, is not the problem. What follows is. The fact that you might lose a client is what really bothers you. Or maybe it’s the fact that this is the third time this person has let you down and you’re beginning to wonder if you can count on her. Or perhaps it’s the fact that you now may have to watch this person more closely, costing you precious time and making her feel micromanaged. Each of these responses is a consequence of the original act and helps unbundle the problem.

When you want to clarify the focus of your accountability discussion, stop and ask yourself, “What are the consequences to me? To our relationship? To the task? To other stakeholders?” Analyzing the consequences helps you determine what is most important to discuss.

Adapted from the book Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny.