Even though it’s been over a decade ago, I vividly recall my shock when sitting, as a board member, in a committee meeting for a major non-profit. The chair asked us each to report back on the task we agreed to do. The second told us that she hadn’t started on her assignment because it had been a very busy month at work. Also, she didn’t offer a deadline by which she would get it done. Nor did she acknowledge how her lapse was going to stall our project.

As a former WSJ and NBC journalist, I lived by deadlines and, unless I was at death’s door, I was expected to keep them. The man across from me, a former Marine, was the only other person who looked momentarily startled as the chair continued around the table, asking others to give their reports. When our committee took a break, and the Marine and I fell into step towards the coffee, he turned to me and said, point blank, “My wife’s also a journalist. She warned me that things would be different in civilian life. She’s encouraged me by saying that perhaps only soldiers, surgeons and journalists must be utterly accountable for the task we are given.”

As serial entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld noted, some people don’t even follow up on a chance to participate in their declared interest. He’s discovered a powerfully simple way of weeding out those who lack follow-through. Assign them a task and see what they do or don’t do.
If this is a hot button behavior for you, too, here are four ways to spur people to keep the agreements they make:

1. Specificity Boosts Clarity and Accountability
The more concrete the agreement, the more clear the obligation and the more difficult it is for someone to misunderstand. “Please get right on that” does not create as much clarity nor accountability as, “Please finalize your choice of vendors by 5 p.m. tomorrow.”
2. Peer Accountability Pins Us Together
Although this did not work on the non-profit committee, when peers meet face-to-face or via group video and make specific agreements with each other and they all have a stake in the outcome there’s a higher probability of securing accountability.
3. Written Proof So We Don’t Goof
To reinforce the power of mutual accountability, have a designated meeting recorder (or take turns with the role) so one participant is responsible for recording action items, deadlines and who’s responsible for each item. The recorder sends that list to all participants’ computers before they leave the meeting.
4. Upfront Rules of Engagement Are Our Guardrails
A company, team, or committee is more likely to spur mutual accountability when it adopts a few, specific agreements about how people will operate together, from punctuality to pithiness in writing or conversing.

Not keeping one’s word is a form of betrayal akin to lying by omission. Alternatively, Margaret Paul offers five reasons to do what you say you will do. Carl Jung wrote, “You are what you do, not what you say you will do.”

“Consistently doing what you say you will do is the foundation of integrity,” according to Skip Prichard. Not keeping agreements pushes others away. Conversely, keeping our commitments to each other cultivates the mutuality mindset that makes us want to provider smarter support sooner.

Author's Bio: 

Kare Anderson’s TED talk on The Web of Humanity: Be an Opportunity Maker has attracted over 2.5 million views. She is an Emmy-winning former NBC and Wall Street Journal journalist, now a speaker on connective behavior and quotability. Her TEDx talk on Redefine Your Life Around a Mutuality Mindset is now a standard session for employees and invited clients at 14 national and global corporations. Her ideas have been cited in 16 books. Her clients are as diverse as Salesforce, Novartis, and The Skoll Foundation. She was a founding board member of Annie’s Homegrown and co-founder of nine women’s political PACs. For Obama's first presidential campaign she created over 208 issues formation teams. She was Pacific Telesis' first Cable TV and Wideband Division Director and a founding board member of Annie's Homegrown. Kare is the author of How We Can Be Greater Together, Opportunity Makers, Mutuality Matters, Moving From Me to We, Beauty Inside Out, Walk Your Talk, Getting What You Want, and Resolving Conflict Sooner. She serves on the boards of The Business Innovation Factory, TEDxMarin, and World Affairs Council Marin.