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A Planner’s Guide to Accountability and Conflict Management

A veteran planner shares her tips on how transparent leadership can help avoid and resolve conflicts.

Being a leader in the meetings industry means walking the walk with the people you lead, according to Michelle Johnson, CMP, owner and president of the Anchor Group. She says, “I have heard this industry is ‘outhouse to White House’—sometimes we are ordering porta-potties for an event and sometimes we are on the corporate jet.” Whatever the task is, a leader is responsible for supporting her staff to make it happen. One of the ways that Johnson says a leader can be accountable and avoid conflict is to offer tips and advice when delegating tasks. The example she gives is baking cookies: Anyone can follow a recipe, but think back to when the person who taught you to bake cookies also offered their own tips and tricks. Communicate how you want a task to be performed, and the chances of success will be higher.

Be Transparent
Johnson believes that one of the most important qualities of a leader is transparency. If you have been honest and transparent about every aspect of a project, your staff will be on the same page and your clients will have appropriate expectations. Transparency sometimes comes at a price, though—you may need to admit you were wrong about something, or show a colleague that they did not follow instructions. To that end, Johnson suggests asking yourself these things before opening your mouth or hitting send on an email:

Would I want this to be published on the front page of the New York Times?

Would I be able to tell my mother?

Could I lose my job or hurt someone by my actions? 

Transparency applies to things being asked of you, too. If you find yourself making concessions and changes to accommodate a situation, be clear about why the situation arose. If you are picking up the slack for a colleague, address the situation before it causes conflict. And if your gut tells you there is something wrong, believe it! “If something doesn’t sit well with you," Johnson says, "look into it.” Why? It’s better to find out what the problem is at the beginning of the process than to discover the source of the  issue at the end.

Ask for Feedback
Johnson says don’t be afraid to ask your clients, “How am I doing? How was the last event we produced?” Clients should feel comfortable being transparent with you, and feedback is critical to improving your services. Johnson suggests that one simple exercise planners can do is write down three things their clients might say about them, and then ask the clients what they would say. It’s a good way to assess how well you are serving them and how accurately you understand their needs.

Set Expectations
Johnson says managing expectations is the best way to avoid conflict—if the project won’t be done by the deadline, you should explain why early in the process and not wait until the last second to check in with the person responsible and brief the client. “If I need a pink elephant at the park at 2 o’clock on Saturday for a birthday party and I assign this task on Monday, but then I show up on Saturday and there is no elephant, I’m just as accountable for the lack of deliverability as the person I asked to do it," she notes. "I didn’t check in, I didn’t set expectations along the way. The onus is on both of us.” 

“Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to the result.” — Michelle Johnson, CMP

Here are 10 qualities Johnson says indicate an accountable person. They:

Answer emails right away

Do what they promised

Take responsibility for actions

Provide proactive solutions

Don’t blame others or make excuses

Behave ethically

Are honest and transparent

Demonstrate outcomes

Review and evaluate so they can improve

Show humility and apologize 

Planners working in the corporate world might be used to a certain level of accountability, but in a volunteer situation more negotiation and follow-ups are required. Ask a person assigned to such a task how they would like to be contacted to keep everyone on the same page. “They may say start with a text,” explains Johnson, “or they may want you to pick up the phone because they don't understand they've made a mistake.” Once planners have permission to have the discussion, it won’t be so hard for them to reach out to get the project back on track.

 Johnson’s top tips for having a difficult conversation:

1.     Always assume the best intentions. The first question should be: Are you OK?

2.     Failure to understand will result in a failure to be understood.

3.     Avoiding problems will never solve the problems. Deal with it!

 If all other efforts have failed and you need to have a conversation to resolve a conflict, follow Johnson’s 10 steps for a successful resolution: 

1.     Be prepared. Do your homework on all sides of the issue first.

2.     Don’t wait, the issue may get worse.

3.     Find a private and neutral place to hold the conversation.

4.     Be aware of body language. Crossing your arms might make you look defensive.

5.     Share your feelings.

6.     Identify the problem.

7.     Listen actively and with compassion.

8.     Find a solution together.

9.     Agree on a plan of action.

10.   Express confidence, and let them know you are going to get through this together.


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