How to Really Hold People Accountable

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The topic of “accountability” anchors almost every leadership discussion I witness these days. While I hear the word accountability ad nauseum, what I see are leaders who lack the intestinal fortitude to follow through on the actions that create it.

Here are the things you’re doing that are eroding accountability.

Taking Control

The leadership team of your organization has asked you to assign one of your team members to lead a company-wide strategic initiative. The job is to take the cursory overview of the project and turn it into a full-fledged business case. You select your best person, give him a few instructions and send him on his way.

Two weeks later, three days before the deadline, you receive his draft and much to your horror, find it’s completely lacking. You clear your calendar and work feverishly night and day to get it into shape so it can go in front of the executive team.

You have just committed the first deadly sin of creating accountability; you took control.

Your decision to take over might have been driven by your perfectionism, by fear of judgment by your superiors, or just a discomfort or lack of skill in providing constructive feedback so the employee could fix the document himself.

Regardless of the reason, what you just said loudly and clearly is: “I am accountable, you are not!” Woops.

Ignoring Outcomes

Returning to our example, consider another reaction you might have when your direct report brought you the draft business case. A haggard and bleary-eyed team member hands you her draft and shares the process she used to get to this point. She spoke with 13 different stakeholders, consulted analysts’ reports, and built a massive spreadsheet to examine the ROI implications of different scenarios. You smile and nod and “ooh” and “aah” at her efforts.

Unfortunately, you’re so busy being impressed by how much work she did that you don’t notice that she missed the point. Although she did twice as much work as required, she looked at everything from the status quo perspective and failed to consider using a new business model.

You have committed the second deadly sin of creating accountability; you focused on the effort and ignored the outcome.

Your decision to focus on the process rather than the result could have been based on a lack of clarity about what success was supposed to look like, or empathy because of the difficulty of the task, or discomfort in providing constructive feedback.

Whatever the reason for it, what you just said loudly and clearly is: “We all know that doesn’t work, but you keep at it!”

Sugar Coating

Now imagine that you are aware of the shortcomings of the work and you choose to provide feedback. That feedback rambles around and around, never really coming to a point. Each piece of constructive feedback is well-disguised by multiple positive statements. You leave the person feeling pretty good about his work with only a minor footnote about minor things that could be done differently next time.

You have committed the third deadly sin of creating accountability; you sugar-coated the feedback and failed to create the lasting impression that comes from having a bad taste in your mouth.

Your decision to (as Mary Poppins would put it) “help the medicine go down” was probably tied up in your discomfort or lack of skill in giving constructive feedback.

What you just said is “You didn’t do a good job, but I like you anyway.”

Are you sensing a theme here…you can talk about accountability all you want but if you aren’t willing to enforce consequences for work that isn’t up to par, you WILL NOT create accountability.

How to increase accountability

First, I have to admit that you can’t actually create accountability. Accountability is a feeling inside a person. You are no more able to make an employee accountable than to make them engaged, happy, productive, etc.

But just as you can do things that make it more likely an employee will be engaged or productive, you can do a lot to increase the likelihood that your employees will feel accountable.

Your role as a manager is to put in place the things that promote a sense of accountability and to solve some of the common problems that dilute that feeling.

Problem #1: Employees don’t feel accountable because they don’t know what’s expected of them.

When you want someone to be accountable, use clear and direct language. “Dwayne, I am putting you in charge of planning this strategic initiative. I expect you to complete all aspects of this template and to pull in the people you need to ensure it’s done well. Unless I hear otherwise, I will assume everything is on track.”

Problem #2: Shared accountability diffuses responsibility.

If two or more people share accountability for an outcome, there’s room for blame and excuses. To rectify that, be specific about what you expect of each. “Dwayne, you’re in charge of the business case overall. Sherry, you’re the lead engineer and you’re responsible for the technical aspects of the plan. Sherry, you’ll need to have all your specs to Dwayne by February 1st so Dwayne has time to build them in.”

Problem #3: Employees might have different standards than you do. They think they’ve accomplished the task when you think it’s incomplete or insufficient.

You need to create a shared sense of what good looks like. “I want this to be more than just the ideas on the top of your head. Your business case needs to include a competitive analysis and at least preliminary numbers on project costs and Return on Investment. Is there anything you’d like to clarify about expectations before you start?”

Problem #4: The person doesn’t know (or is covering up) that they are getting behind or off track. By the time anyone notices, it’s too late.

The best way to increase an employee’s sense of accountability is to let them know you’re paying attention. That doesn’t mean micro-managing (which reduces accountability).

It just means noticing what they’re doing and checking in periodically. “How is the project scoping coming along? Anything you’re worried about? It’s really important that we give the executives the information to make a good decision on this.”

Problem #5: Poor outcomes are ignored, especially if people made a good effort.

If people don’t see consequences when they fail to deliver, they won’t feel much accountability in the future. The best consequence is feedback. It is important to create discomfort when goals aren’t met. “Let’s debrief on the business case you prepared. The information was well done and the Executive Team had a really fruitful discussion. Unfortunately, your plan only considered one path and didn’t give us optional scenarios. How did you arrive at your decision to only include one approach?”

In a majority of cases, this is all that will be required. Transparency and candour about the person’s performance relative to the goals will create just the right amount of heat to motivate the person.

If this is not the first time the person has failed to deliver or if the performance was especially problematic, you might need additional consequences. “I will be asking someone else to scope out the next initiative,” or “Next time, I will need you to meet with me more regularly so I can coach you more closely.”

You don’t want to create accountability by being mean or scary or any other form of asshole. You just want employees to have a very clear view of what you expect and a set of uncomfortable (but not painful) consequences if they don’t deliver.

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Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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