In my most recent post, I got a little hot under the collar about managers who talk about accountability, but fail to do the uncomfortable things to create and reinforce it. I’ve settled down and am ready to be a little more constructive. Today’s post is a step-by-step on how to create accountability.

What is accountability?

First, I’m going to correct myself. You can’t 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 accountability.

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

Solution #1: Set Clear Expectations

When you want someone to be accountable, use clear and direct language. “Dwayne, I’m 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.

Solution #2: Differentiate Roles

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.

Solution #3: Define Success

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.

Solution #4: Pay Attention and Provide Ongoing Feedback

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.

Solution #5: Follow Through with Consequences

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’s 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. What was your thought process in choosing what to include?”

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 isn’t the first time the person has failed to deliver or if their 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. 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.

Further Reading

Should you Get Involved?

What’s Wrong with Balance

Read the Damn Pre-Read People!

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