On Leaders and Accountability (Part 3): Cheating Scandal at Harvard and Clarifying Expectations

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The Feb 1, 2013 revelation that more than half of the participants in the “Government 1310: ‘Introduction to Congress’” class at Harvard received sanctions for cheating on the final exam.

This brings new light to the cultural push-back against accountability and highlights the need for clarity of expectations. 

Collaborating or Cheating?

When many students were kicked out of school for a period, there were complaints by some that the instructions were not clear and that in the past they had some tests that encouraged collaborative effort.

Yet the instructions for this test were designed to get the students to do independent work/thinking and were very clear stating, “More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others—this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.”

Still many students claimed it was unfair treatment, justifying their assumptions that it was okay to “collaborate.”

Clarity and Accountability

This situation provides a real Harvard Case Study for our third installment* on accountability; without clarity, holding people accountable becomes progressively murky, inviting the laziness of human nature mentioned in my last installment on this subject (in the case of this news story, looking for the easy way to get a good grade).

“This situation highlights the point of clarifying and over-communicating your expectations, otherwise some people make their own assumptions and then it gets harder to hold them accountable.”

Achieving clarity is not easy and there are several reasons why:

  • Leaders can be lazy and make assumptions about their expectations.
  • Many of us are not good listeners.
  • Some of us don’t follow instructions well.
  • It’s common to make wrong assumptions about what others mean.
  • In a progressively “ME” centered world, assuming the world is the way we want it to be is becoming more common.

Leaders must go the extra mile to clarify expectations. To insure clarity in his orders to his generals, it’s said that Napoleon called in a private or corporal and read the message to them; and if they could understand, he felt sure his generals would get it.

Leadership Acuity

acuity /acu·i·ty/ (ah-ku´ĭ-te) n.

Clarity or clearness, especially of vision. a·cu·i·ty (-ky-t)
Sharpness, clearness, and distinctness of perception or vision.

What needs to be clarified? The process of clarity starts at a high level and becomes progressively granular.

  • 100,000 foot level.  Mission, vision, and values. Knowing these three items, a person has a great deal of insight into what is expected at the macro level and once inculcated, they don’t  have to be reviewed on every assignment; however, they do have to be reviewed periodically.  When I was in the air force, we had to review certain policies and guidelines semi-annually and some annually.
  • 50,000 foot level. Know the standards of the organization and for a specific type of work or industry.
  • 25,000 foot level. Be clear about the peculiarities that are important to you.  I have a standard list of items that I’ve used for years to brief people on my specific quirks as a leader. For example, “No yes people.  If I’m wrong, you had better disagree with me early and often until I say ‘I own it’.”
  • 10,000 foot level. The details of work expectations.
    • What are the goals?
    • If you have something specific in mind, give a general idea of what a successful outcome might look like.
    • What are the resources you are making available?
    • Clarify any specific problems or issues you want addressed in a certain way.
    • Agreement on a schedule of  milestones and feedback on progress.
      • Consider the personality and track record of the person
        • Some people self-manage and some don’t.
        • More interaction required for some
  • 5,000 foot level.  Consider weekly check-ins to find out how things are going. This could be a five-minute informal update on progress and a chance for the person to ask questions for more clarity.

Keeping Your Distance

Clarify but don’t micro-manage.  Nobody wants to be micro-managed, but an ongoing dialog can be helpful.  Manage the person based on their individual personality, experience, and needs. Some people will need very little input and some will need more. Introverts are typically more self-managed and don’t want much input, but they also want clarity about your expectations.

Extroverts will typically want more face time and want to talk it through to know what they are really thinking. Be smart and be fair, but realize that you will need and lead/manage each person differently when it comes to how you interact with them.

“Clarifying reduces the fog, friction, and static of communications that undermine high performance. The goal is that everyone is seeing the same picture in their mind of the expectations and goals.”

Clarity brings positive energy. The pace of life and business is too fast and our time demands are too demanding to use the “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it” as a consistent style of management.

Providing good leadership is always a challenge and bringing clarity to goals and expectations is one of your greatest challenges. How well are you doing in providing clarity?  What mistakes have you made and what did you learn from them? How about your successes?  Tell us about those too.  We can learn from your stories good and bad.

This Article is Part 3 in the “On Leaders and Accountability” series:


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Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
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His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

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L2L Contributing Author