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Holding people accountable is the cornerstone of effective work. But how?

In some ways, accountability is the entire cornerstone of the work experience. Although some leaders contextualize it around scaring employees, that’s not the right definition of “accountability.” Much more than taking the blame when something goes wrong or confessing to your organizational sins, accountability is about following through on a commitment. 

And, indeed, the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) did a study showing that, if you commit to someone around finishing a project, your odds of hitting the end goal reach 65%. If you have weekly check-ins with a commitment partner, your odds of goal achievement hit 95%. Accountability is the backbone of commitment, and commitment -- to each other, to work projects -- drives work. That’s even more pronounced in the modern moment, because you’re likely not sitting 12 feet from someone you need accountability from anymore. You need to reach them on a chat channel, a video, a phone call, a text, etc. You want to know they are committed, just like you are.

But it all begs the bigger question: what is the right approach to holding people accountable? You don’t want to be a tyrant or a micromanager, of course. And especially in trying times for parents and all professionals from a mental health standpoint, you want to demand accountability but operate with some degree of grace. What’s the right balance here? 

This is a guide to holding people accountable: approaches that have seemed to work in organizations of all sizes and industries. What can we learn?

Table of contents

The value of being clear

The baseline approach of holding people accountable is to be clear in your interactions with them, notably:

Clear expectations: What is the desired goal? How will this project be measured? Is there a specific process, or is the path to the end goal flexible? Are there tools and tech stack elements that must be used, or can you “audible” as to how the end goal is met? Essentially: what needs to happen as the project unfolds. Be clear in your communication.

Clear capabilities: This goes to resources, tools, skills, and more discussed above. An additional factor of importance here: access to the right people. Oftentimes to complete a project, you need access to subject matter experts, senior leaders, customers, clients, or more. There needs to be defined accountabilities there, because oftentimes what you are beholden to (your accountabilities and goals) are not the same as someone else. Essentially: there needs to be clarity on process, people, and tools needed to get work done. 

Clear measurement: How will a work project be judged? What are the inputs and outputs? What are the metrics? Anyone involved in it should be able to explain how it’s being judged, quantitatively. Remember: we live in the era of data. To get the most out of holding people accountable, we need to be aligned around metrics. This is a common issue between marketing and sales, who often use different metrics for success even though they’re highly-interconnected departments in most organizations.

Clear feedback: How much? How often? In what format? Will it only occur at the end of a project, or occur organically and frequently throughout? Who delivers the feedback? Can team members offer feedback to other team members, or is it only top-down? These are questions you need to consider in order to make sure that people on projects are being held accountable in logical, purposeful ways. Remember: constructive criticism does keep top talent engaged.

Clear consequences: What happens if the project doesn’t go as planned? Will there be repercussions? What if the project is massively successful? Will members of the team thus be able to advance in the organization? What are the outcomes relative to the goal? 

This may seem like a lot of additional questions to ask yourself before launching a work project, and can feel daunting. We understand that perception. But if you want to achieve success both at the project itself and at holding people accountable to the end goals, you need to think through how to present unified clarity on these topics.

A core aspect of holding people accountable: adapt to work styles.

Shared accountability is great for teamwork and collaboration, but can diffuse responsibility. You’ve heard of the Kitty Genovese case? She was stabbed repeatedly in a New York City courtyard. Multiple people heard her scream, but no one contacted the authorities. It’s been called “diffusion of responsibility” and “the bystander effect,” and while later generations of psychologists have tried to debunk the theories, think about most work projects you’ve been a part of. If the roles are not clear, you risk nothing getting done at a high level. People meander around and wonder “Does Michael own that element of it?”

If you want to get better at holding people accountable, you may need specific roles and lines of sight, i.e.: 

“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.”

This is especially important for team members who naturally have a high motivation for sole responsibility — they will need clearly defined roles and responsibilities to stay motivated.

On the other hand, for team members who are naturally more inclined toward sharing responsibility, you will want to give them opportunities to collaborate with other team members and remind them of the shared goal they are contributing to, while still maintaining clear outcome expectations so they know they are on the right track.

The “deadly sins” of holding people accountable

Three of the worst things you can do in the name of holding people accountable are:

  • Taking too much control
  • Ignoring outcomes
  • Sugar-coating or “compliment sandwiches”

When you take too much control, you are not being a good manager anyway -- you’re essentially a micromanager. That’s not accountability so much as demanding answers for dropped balls or incomplete elements of the project. While this can be an effective motivator for some, it generally erodes trust on the team and drives up turnover.

Ignoring outcomes goes back to having clear goals, mentioned above. Sometimes on a project, a person will do tons of work and put in lots of late nights and the effort is there, for sure. But the outcome isn’t right. If the effort is great but the outcome is wrong, the project ultimately did not achieve goals. So, when you see that -- tons of effort, but in the wrong direction -- that goes back to the feedback aspect of holding people accountable, where you need to regularly say things like “I’m very impressed with how dedicated you are on this project, but are we focused on the right end goal?”

Sugar-coating or compliment sandwiches means that when you deliver feedback, it’s not direct and all the negatives are pushed between two positives. The manager might think “Oh, this project didn’t go too well,” but what the employees hear is “Cool, I did a good job. Onto the next thing!” This is common when managers like their employees as people, and are thus afraid to deliver clear, direct feedback. 

If you find yourself doing any of the above three, you are not holding people accountable effectively.

After a project and feedback, should you coach?

Absolutely. Because holding people accountable is a long-term, consistent aspect of management and leadership. And, sadly something that regularly gets forgotten? It needs to occur at all levels. There can be a perception in larger organizations that people higher up a chain (senior leaders) do not need to be accountable, because they’ve already achieved career goals and risen up the ladder of success. That’s incorrect. If senior leaders are not accountable, it becomes very challenging to align strategy with execution.

Holding people accountable is something that should be happening every hour in your organization. So, when a project is completed, if there were issues with the project, there should be a recap meeting where issues are considered (maybe with index cards or in the chat feature remotely), then discussed, then everyone involved in the project sets some concrete steps to avoid in future projects. When those steps are set, design accountability partners for each person. That way, Jeff knows he should hit deadlines on-time more, and Molly knows that she’ll be checking in with Jeff to make sure he does that. 

As you go forth and continue to work on both core products and new ideas, continue to look for opportunities for feedback and coaching. These are the cornerstones of long-term success at holding people accountable. 

Is there “wiggle room” when holding people accountable?

There is some, yes, but not much. For example, in one study, 95% of employees who asked for a deadline extension received one. We get very nervous about deadlines at work, and rightfully so, but most managers would tend to want a better finished product than a rushed product to hit a deadline (within reason). So, it is possible to hold your team accountable by saying at the front-end of a project, “These deadlines are based on end quality and goal achievement, so if you think you need more time to create something that will delight the customer, by all means let’s have a discussion about it.”

You don’t want your team to run roughshod on you, no. But there are elements of holding people accountable where some “wiggle room” does exist, especially if the end goal is long-term quality and goal achievement, and not just finishing everything by the 30th of a month.

Quick tip: hold people accountable in writing (and yes, fire them)

When people are not performing on clear goals, processes, and expectations, it’s powerful to both discuss issues with them one-on-one, but also put down the feedback in writing. And if they consistently don’t deliver on expectations and goals, it is OK -- while not pleasant -- to fire people. 

It does send a message that holding people accountable, and achievement, are clear priorities of the organization. If you let underwhelming loafers stay for years, it sends the message that working hard and achieving goals are not the point of your organization, which can quickly dampen morale. Being direct in your feedback, actions, and consequences is a form of transformational leadership.

The bottom line on holding people accountable

This is not necessarily easy for most human beings, because we want to be liked (especially as bosses), and clear feedback and priorities are not as common within organizations as we often hope. But it can be done, especially if everything is rooted in clarity: expectations, goals, processes, people, metrics, and feedback. If you can work through the steps of getting everyone aligned around the same expectations up front, you will do a great job of ultimately holding people accountable. 

Holding people accountable on your team can be easy when you know their work style! Measure your team’s work style with a free F4S account today.

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