Living in a World of Low Accountability and False Pride

I had to hold accountable a sheetrock guy the other day because he spent money advanced for a job on his personal bills instead of the job. Then he whined and complained when I temporarily fired him and refused to advance further funds.

There is a process I follow when holding others accountable to the agreements they made and this guy seemed truly stunned at my response to his request for more money, as if everyone else in his life tolerates and accepts his lack of integrity and his lame excuses.

I went to the job site, which happens to be my Mother’s garage, Saturday to see for myself the situation being described by him as a problem. We are replacing all the sheetrock in my Mom’s garage ceiling because the old sheetrock had started falling down in chunks and I decided it would be best to redo the entire ceiling rather than try to patch it back together. My Mom hired a guy out of the Christian Yellow Pages and signed a contract stating 1/3 payment up front and the remainder upon completion.

It turns out the 2×4 ceiling joists across the width of the garage were butted together with another short 2×4 scabbed across the top of the butt joint and the three pieces were joined with a nail plate. This is a structurally poor setup and the joists were sagging at the butt joints (which no doubt contributed to the original sheetrock falling down). We got a carpenter to come look and all agreed that we needed to marry some new 2x6x12 joists to the original 2x4s which would eliminate the sagging and provide a solid, stable and level ceiling structure upon which to install the new sheetrock.

The carpenter said he’d install the joists for $300 plus materials. I agreed and I wrote a check for $500 to the sheetrock guy, from which he was to pay the carpenter and retain a small $200 advance due to this being the second delay caused by unexpected framing issues.

Monday morning the sheetrock guy called me to ask if I was going to be able to come over and write a check to give the carpenter. “Oh great”, I thought. “He is one of those kind of contractors”.

I had had my suspicions because on my two earlier encounters with him he made multiple mentions of how good and honest he is, and that he’s a Christian. Listening to him, I detected neediness, false pride, insecurity and desire for approval, which is often a red flag indicating incompetence. And nothing against Christians, but my past experience tells me that people who throw their faith out there as some sort of advance guaranty, intending it to be pre-validation of their integrity, often turn out to be unreliable and flaky. Fact is, some of the best and most skilled contractors I’ve ever known were foul mouthed smokers who drank too much and lacked any pretentiousness.

So, would this sheetrock guy validate my judgments of him? Here is how the conversation went:

Me: “You hired the carpenter, not be. It’s you who pays him and I already advanced you funds for that purpose. I’m confused as to why you’re calling me and asking for another check.”

SR Guy: “Well… I had some unexpected bills I had to pay and I don’t have money left to pay him. Can you just come and write him a check and deduct it from the final draw?”

Me: “No. That’s not the agreement we made. I’m going to review with you, right now, my understanding of our our agreement and I want you to stop me if I say something different than what you remember, ok?”

SR Guy: “Uhhh, …ok.”

Me: “It was decided Saturday that eleven 2x6x12 joists needed to be added to the ceiling structure. Your carpenter quoted $300 labor to do the job, and I agreed. I advanced you $500 so you would have the money to pay him upon completion and I agreed to buy the lumber and leave it for pick-up at the Home Depot on Slaughter Ln., which I did. The carpenter picked up the lumber yesterday and completed the job, just like he promised. He was to be paid by you, not me. That’s my understanding of our agreement. Do you disagree or have a different recollection?”

SR Gut: “No. It’s like you said. I don’t disagree with that”.

Me: “Then why are you asking me to write another check this morning?”

SR Guy: Well, …. it costs me $30/day to just drive there and back and my truck broke down yesterday and I had to spend money to get it fixed. I’m living hand to mouth basically and I had some other bills that I had to take care of today, and … {continues with lengthy sob story – I just listened}”.

Me: “None of that is my problem. We had an agreement and you chose not to keep your agreement by making other things more important. You are out of integrity. I don’t trust you to do what you say you’ll do anymore. I’m disappointed that we’re having this conversation. I want you to stop all work immediately. Do not go back to the job. You are no longer on the job until we gain clarity on how we are going to do business together and whether you feel like you can keep your agreements with me, OK?”

Silence ….

Me: “Are you there?”

SR Guy: “Yeah….uhhh … but I need to finish this job and get paid. I don’t have another job to go to today. I’ll basically lose a day of work and I can’t afford that. That’s really going to suck. And I still need to pay my carpenter.”

Me: “I want you to finish the job too, but I don’t do business your way. I only do business with people who are reliable and keep their agreements. You are telling me that you break your agreements and make your personal problems more important than your business relationships, so we need to call it quits right now and I’ll find someone else to finish the job unless you’re willing to reconsider what an agreement means to you”.

SR Guy: “OK, forget about the paying carpenter. I’ll figure something out.”

We worked it out with further conversation and he was back on the job that day, with additional helpers. He will receive no further payments, per our contract, until full and proper completion is achieved, which he promised would be by the end of the day tomorrow. I’m hopeful that he can keep his word. One thing I do know, once you start down the slippery slope of letting a contractor ask for and receive extra money, the odds of a happy ending decrease.

The accountability template I use when dealing with conflict or confusion has four main components. They are:
1) Data
2) Judgments
3) Feelings
4) Wants

These come from the four ancient male archetypes, King (want), Lover (feeling), Warrior (data) and Magician (judgment).

Rather than debate or argue aimlessly with people, especially contractors, I try to speak within the context of the above template and I find that it helps the conversation remain clear and focused.

In this case, the above dialog worked like this:

Data: I checked out the data (the agreement) to see if I was missing something and I received verification/validation that my understanding of the data/agreement was correct. So, the facts were then clear and not in dispute. Then I stated the data, “We had an agreement and you chose not to keep your agreement.”

Judgment(s): “You are out of integrity” and “I don’t trust you to do what you say you’ll do.”

Feeling: “I’m disappointed (sad) that we are even having this conversation”

Want: “I want you to stop all work immediately. Do not go back to the job”. Then later “I want you to finish the job {provided that you do so as agreed}.

What a lot of us do during conflict or disagreements is go straight into feelings and judgment without ever stating clearly our understanding of the data, or our wants. Or we treat a judgment (or opinion) as fact or data and attack people with it. For example, if I had launched into a tirade such as:

“you’re just like every other contractor out there … you underbid the job then run out of money and ask for more … and guys like you really piss me off … and who do you think you’re dealing with here anyway …”

All of that would be judgments and feeling but it’s missing that facts/data or the want. It doesn’t provide a dialog roadmap to a good, clean resolution.

Often, people are afraid to state clearly what they want because doing so represents “setting and holding boundaries”. When you set and hold boundaries with people, they might not like what you say, or they might not like you. We all want to be liked, so I’ve found this to be a big issue for many people. When I am NOT able to set and hold boundaries with others, then things usually get slippery and confusing and I often don’t receive the outcome I want, and I often feel like a victim after things turn out poorly.

When I AM able to set and hold boundaries, such as with this sheetrock guy, I feel empowered because, by following a tried and true accountability template, I don’t drift off into stories or further judgments and feelings. I don’t let my anger take over the conversation. I don’t end up feeling walked on or abused. The conversation and the purpose of the conversation (the “want”) stays on target. And if he doesn’t like me because of it, it’s not my problem.

This model for dialog works in all areas of life with all people, including bosses, friends, spouses, relatives, clients, customers and especially kids. ”
You promised to clean your room this morning (data). It’s 4PM now and you haven’t done it. (more data) You’ve spent the morning goofing, laying around and being lazy (judgments/opinion) and I’m sad (feeling) that you didn’t do what you agreed to do. I want you to tell me again (want) when you plan to clean your room and I want it done by then”.

See how all the four areas got covered. Try it for yourself the next time you feel frustrated with someone who isn’t doing what they said they’d do, or who makes excuses and/or tries to get you to become responsible for the consequences of their own failures. All you have to do is say, “the Data is …, my Judgement is …., I’m feeling …., and what I want is …..

Finally, is the sheetrock guy a bad person? No. He’s just another man living without a life Mission or an accountability system. He’s so accustomed to being not being held accountable, and not keeping agreements, that being asked to do so seems abnormal and strange. He actually told me, among other things, he didn’t see what the big deal was.

There are a lot of people like that in the world. We deal with them all the time in the real estate business. Mortgage people are the worst, as they seem to think that a delayed closing is acceptable and that it’s no big deal if they didn’t get the loan docs prepared on time or if the fees were higher than earlier promised. And their lack of integrity and unwillingness to be accountable screws up a lot of deals and causes other people to have to absorb the consequences of their decision to not do what they agreed to do. I wish more agents would make these loan officers suffer, as I do, by giving them hell when they do a lousy job and miss deadlines. Since they rarely experience such a consequence, they just keep on doing it their way. Just like many of the contractors we encounter.

And, because I’m not perfect either, I try to be aware of when I don’t keep my agreements or I fall short or try to make others own my problems. I’m guilty of it also, at times. It’s human nature to head that direction but if we all could become just a little more conscious of it and hold ourselves to a higher standard of integrity and accountability, the world would be a much more harmonious place.

7 thoughts on “Living in a World of Low Accountability and False Pride”

  1. I like to hear about people being held accountable – but realistically is this a pragmatic solution? How do you know the guy’s not going to take his anger out in the quality of the work now?

  2. M1EK, if the work is not completed properly he won’t get paid. But your point is well taken.

    Knowing when and where to pick battles is important. I find it frustrating though that mediocrity has become so acceptable in so many facets of professional and trade services nowadays.


  3. Great Post, Steve!
    Mediocrity seems to have become more acceptable since we moved here in 2002. A prime example is the help at the grocery store. In 2002, people were out of their way friendly and helpful. I have noticed this year, it’s unreasonable for me to expect that the cooler be stocked by 8am on Saturday with gallons of milk that expire in a week’s time (not tomorrow).

    On a related note, it seems that it is acceptable to “Over Promise” and “Under Deliver.” I see it all of the time: whether it be missed deadlines or only doing 90% of what was promised. It’s better for your professional reputation to say, “that’s out of my expertise” or “will not finish before…” than to make empty promises of “Sure… No problem…”

    Your word is your reputation…

  4. good story, i learned. I have a soft heart and contractors quickly learn how to walk all over you if you start letting little things slip. It’s sad but true reality that dealing with tradesman (or any business really) take a lot of courage and hard-ass-ness.

  5. Get this, the guy finished up the job this afternoon. It looked good so I gave my Mom the go ahead to pay him and then I left as the guy was loading up his stuff.

    My Mom called me 15 minutes later and told me he tried to hit her up for extra money after I left, whining about the extra time it took him and the extra “$30 per trip” visits he had to make to the job.

    She stood her ground and paid the agreed remainder but I can’t believe that he waited until I left then tried to get my Mom to fork out more money.

    Contractors have the same problem as Realtors. Those of us who are straight up and deal fairly with people have to fight the negative stereotypes that the bad apples create. I know there are a lot of good contractors out there, but it’s hard to tell up front who they are because even the bad ones normally talk a good game when bidding a job.


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