Dave Conrad: Accountability is a management challenge

Dear Dave: I manage a large department. How can I get my people to be more accountable for results? — R

Dear R: This is a management responsibility, because I believe one of the most important requirements for management is establishing clear accountability. If you hired the best people, trained them and empowered them to do their job, you must ensure results are tracked and obtained.

The goal is to motivate responsible people to do their jobs and the assumption is people will perform more effectively if they know exactly what they are supposed to accomplish and what will happen, or how they will be rewarded, if they make or miss the target.

Accountability does not mean managers have a license to ride their staff like rented mules. And, accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment and an expectation. It's a responsibility to provide an outcome. It's taking initiative with thoughtful, action-oriented follow-through.

When people are hired, there is a contract — written or implicit — that states the company is responsible for helping the employee be successful in any way it can, and the employee will do their work to the best of their ability, on time and consistently. That's it — it is a 2-way street and this dual accountability should provide fulfillment of expectations and positive results.


However, I believe the interpretation of the word "accountability" has taken on an onerous connotation. People may see accountability as rigid control or manipulation. It may be seen as a form of strict measurement designed to trip people up. Nothing is further from the truth — accountability is doing what is expected and being gauged against these expectations.

Accountability in practice

As managers, we do many things that are difficult — one of which is holding people to needed performance. Managers must create and encourage a "culture of accountability," where every employee — including management — does what they are expected to do and maintains a good attitude about doing the work. So what can we do to foster accountability in the people we manage? We need to aim for clarity in some key areas.

First, research shows a crucial part of employee accountability is helping employees understand how their work contributes to the overall organizational success. Employees need to know their work and efforts matter to the big picture. Employees also must clearly understand how their individual goals contribute to the achievement of department or organizational goals. This knowledge increases both their sense of accountability and contribution.

The next step is to be crystal clear about what you expect. This means being clear about the outcome you're looking for, how you'll measure success and how people should go about achieving the objectives. I advise you to have an open and sincere two-way conversation with staff and get them participating in a plan. And before it's over, ask the employee to summarize the important pieces — to make sure you're both on the same page.

Then, determine what skills and capabilities any of your staff may need to meet the laid out and agreed-upon expectations? Think about the resources they may need. If each person does not have what's necessary, how can they possibly perform? If the wherewithal is lacking, discuss and come up with a specific plan to provide what they need.

Finally, provide clear feedback — honest, open and ongoing feedback is critical. People should know where they stand and how they are doing. If you have clear expectations, capability and measurement, the feedback will be based on fact and not wild surmise. Give feedback daily if you can, or at least weekly. And remember it's more important to be a good coach than to just be a nice person — tell the truth.

These are the core ingredients promoting a culture of accountability. The trick is to provide clear expectations and outcomes, support the employees in any way you can, inspect the progress being made and then reward those who are accountable and perform well.

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