Upfront Contracts

Is it possible to change the behaviour of Pete the Promiser? You know Pete. He’s the guy that tells you he’ll get the job done by a certain deadline but never does. He doesn’t warn you that he’s going to be late. He doesn’t even realize he didn’t do it until you ask him for it. And when you do, he’s got an excuse. If you point out that the excuse is unacceptable, he’ll either get angry at you (the best defence is a good offence) or he’ll take full responsibility and say, “Yes, my bad. I’m so sorry.” Then he’ll turn around and do the same darn thing next week.

When confronted with this situation many managers believe they either have to live with it or replace him. But it’s possible to alter his behaviour by engaging him in an Upfront Contract. An upfront contract is an agreement between two or more parties to behave in a certain way, given certain conditions. This is not a legal term; rather, it’s based on the assumption that most people are honest, hardworking, and trying to do their best. If they agree to do something, they’ll do it if they understand the importance.

We’re All Adults Here

There are Petes in every industry, in every company, and in every family.  Pete is not someone who is being set up for failure. He is not the fall guy, not someone who is working in a disorganized company and just at the end of the chain. He’s the wife that never remembers to take out the garbage or the husband that always forgets to call and say he is going to be late. He is the sales rep that says he’ll call at a certain time and then doesn’t. Or says he’ll deliver on a certain date, and always has an excuse why he didn’t. This behaviour drives people crazy. “If you say you are going to do something, do it. If something comes up and you don’t get to it, just tell me.” These are the well-worn thought patterns of leaders and entrepreneurs. To them, it seems like common sense. And yet, whether in personal or professional life, people will miss commitments and won’t inform you that they’re going to miss them. Why is that?

Some say they are just “lazy, good for nothing, can’t follow up with that new prospect or show up to a meeting on time if their life depended on it” kinds of people, but there has to be more to it than that.

Is it possible that what you are asking for is not their priority, and so it falls off their radar? It isn’t happening in their perception of the world. After all, you can’t fix what you don’t know about or care about.

Establishing the Upfront Contract

There is a four step formula for accountability that includes an upfront contract. This formula is designed to help you engage people to follow through on their commitments more consistently and with less babysitting on your part. I can’t guarantee it will work with teenagers, but playing the law of averages it should work more often than not with your staff.

1. Set the Expectation

You know what they say about assumptions making you and me a donkey’s cousin? Well, “they” are right. If you want something done, tell people. The most expeditious and effective way to set expectations in a company is to use a job description but that isn’t the only way. You can also verbally tell them both what you want done and the degree of importance and urgency repeatedly and clearly so they understand how to prioritize. For example, “Pete, your clients have always been happy with you. Recently, however, I received a call complaining that delivery is always late. I know we aren’t backed up in the factory – are you promising delivery dates you know we won’t be able to meet?”

2. Obtain Commitment

It is not enough just to tell someone your expectations. They have to agree to them. There are different degrees of commitment. Asking Pete, “will you quote two weeks delivery every time from now on?” and having him respond “yeah, yeah” to get you out of his hair is much different than saying, “Put yourself in their shoes. They are making commitments to their clients too. How important would it be to you to receive our parts on time?” asking for and receiving a genuine response.

3. Establish Consequences

Once you have obtained a commitment, strengthen it by asking Pete how he would like you to handle it if either of you don’t make good on that agreement.  In other words, explicitly state the consequences of lack of follow through on his part. “So, what do you think I should do if I keep receiving complaints about missed deliveries when I know we’re meeting our internal deadlines? How should it be handled, Pete?”

4. Follow Up and Through

Check back in on the agreed upon date (doing the thing you agreed to do) and make sure they did the thing they agreed to do.

A Word On Doing It Yourself

People are still going to miss meetings, not take out the garbage, and file their reports late. Unfortunately, it’s often the person that needs the information more or just doesn’t want to be a nag that gives in and does it themselves. Sighing heavily, muttering about the lack of justice in the world, they systematically write the report, tracks down the person, or changes the meeting time yet again. While there is no doubt in my mind that these people have the best of intentions, their actions are remarkably counter-productive for the company and their own interests. While they are busily reinforcing the belief that “if I want it done right, I’ve got to do it myself,” everyone else in the company is simultaneously learning, “if I leave it long enough, someone else will do it.”

Changing behaviour is not an activity; it’s a process. People will unwittingly slide back to old habits, forget what they were supposed to do, and sometimes have their own priorities that push your requests out of the way. While doing it yourself is the expeditious short-term strategy, eventually you will reach capacity with yourself. Consistent application of the accountability formula will serve you well in the long run.

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Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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