Have you ever heard the story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody? It’s called “That’s not my Job,” and it goes like this:
“There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.”
No one in this story took responsibility for the job. As a result, they accomplished nothing. Similar attitudes are common in companies that lack a culture of accountability.
In this article, we’ll explain what holding people accountable means, and suggest strategies you can use to encourage them to take ownership of their work.
What Does “Holding People Accountable” Mean?
Accountability boils down to one thing: responsibility.
When you hold people accountable, you make sure that they achieve the goals you have agreed, to the standards and deadlines you have set.
However, some managers aren’t comfortable with this, and give their team members extra chances to perform, so they don’t have to discipline them. They worry that if they put pressure on people to meet their targets, they may complain or even quit their jobs. Also, some leaders are more concerned about being liked than about team performance.
These managers may give poor performers’ work to stronger team members, to avoid confronting them, or they simply hope that, over time, everyone’s performance will improve.
But “burying your head in the sand” like this is not the solution. If you let poor performance slide, it can set a dangerous precedent. Your under-achievers might believe that you aren’t serious about deadlines and expectations, and your high-performers see your failure to deal with the issue and may decide they don’t need to work so hard.
The key to embracing accountability is to change your thinking from a negative, blame-focused view to a positive, performance-boosting perspective. Holding individuals accountable can improve their results, as well as those of your team.
The Pros and Cons of Accountability
When you hold your people accountable, it benefits them, your team, and your organization as a whole.
If you can encourage them to take responsibility and hit their targets, they will likely feel more engaged with their work, which can lead to higher morale and job satisfaction, and better performance. However, if you confuse “accountability” with “control,” it can lead to them feeling micromanaged .
Holding people to account doesn’t mean that you hover over them while they are trying to work. If you become a “control freak,” you can make them feel claustrophobic, resentful and unproductive. They can begin to doubt their own abilities, and their performance can suffer as a result.
Be consistent when you set performance standards and when you measure them. Some team members may feel that they are being singled out for unfair treatment if you handle them differently to their colleagues.
Strategies for Holding People Accountable
Here are some ways you can improve accountability among your team members:
- Start With Yourself
Teams work hard for leaders they admire, so set a good example. If you have a positive attitude and a high level of professionalism, your people will respect you and put in extra effort. In short, if you expect your team members to perform to your expectations, you must be a good role model for them.
- Set Clear Expectations
Don’t assume that your people will instinctively know what you expect of them in terms of quality, deadlines or results. So, if you have specific requirements, explain them. For example, if you expect someone to check in with you at certain times, let them know.
The clearer you communicate your expectations, the better the results are likely to be. Just be careful not to lapse into micromanagement.
As part of this, make sure that your team members have a copy of their job description , and review their duties with them regularly, perhaps in one-to-ones or quarterly reviews.
- Establish Performance Standards
Be specific about how you intend to measure performance. That way, you can hold your team members accountable for any gaps between their progress and their goals.
Where this is appropriate, a great way to plan for success is to draw up well-defined SMART goals . These are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-bound. They give people a clear target, and give you a concrete way to assess their results.
- Obtain Commitment
Unless you can get people to commit to meeting the goals you set, they may fall short. Explain to them how their role ties in with the mission of your organization . You can also describe how their success could lead to greater recognition, financial rewards, or opportunities for growth.
Then, before they get started, ask your team members to agree verbally or, even better, in writing to the schedule, process and targets.
- Follow up, Then Follow up Again
Many people fall short of their goals because of poor follow-up. Set regular meetings to catch up on progress, actions and issues to encourage your team members to stay on track. If they know that you expect a weekly progress report, they’ll be less likely to procrastinate and more likely to hit their targets.
You can also “keep tabs” on people informally outside of any scheduled meetings. And give feedback when appropriate, as establishing a culture where feedback is the norm will make people more receptive to it.
- Assess Performance
Your team members should be on track with your clear game plan and regular check-ins. If they are, praise them for their diligence. If they are not, you need to step in and find out why.
If someone is falling behind, ask them to brainstorm ways that they can get back on track, working with them if necessary. However, encourage them to come up with their own ideas and take appropriate action on their own initiative.
Also, review instructions to make sure they’re clear, and, where appropriate, provide support or training to resolve any issues
If, despite your best efforts, they still don’t achieve their goals, you need to show them, and the rest of your team, that you are serious about improving performance. But do so in a way that stresses it is an opportunity for personal growth, and is not intended as a punishment.
Part of this may involve drawing up a performance agreement . These are written, signed plans that set reasonable expectations, create milestones, and establish consequences for failure. Prepare these agreements in collaboration with your team members, so you can avoid future doubts or misunderstandings.
If there is still no improvement despite your support and coaching, you may need to resort to disciplinary measures. Consult with your HR department on this.
If people are not going to hit key goals, they need to have told you about this well in advance, so you can take appropriate action to bring the project back on course or manage expectations yourself. Make sure that your people know you expect this, and take appropriate action if they let you down!
It’s old advice, but it’s good advice: if people are having problems or are falling behind, expect them to come to you with possible solutions, rather than just with the problems themselves. Expect them to have thought about how to solve the problems before they present them to you.
Some people may subconsciously seek to avoid being held accountable by being vague about their commitments or by throwing up a “smokescreen” of complexity around what they are doing. Take the time to cut through this, agree clear SMART goals with them, and make sure you follow up on these goals.
Holding your team members accountable means that you require them to answer for their actions. By doing so, you encourage them to improve their performance.
Accountability is built on clear expectations. Without this foundation, you won’t be able to monitor their progress or evaluate their results.
Have regular conversations with your team members about their progress and performance. Praise them for good results and coach them when they fall short. If their performance does not improve, address this with meaningful consequences.
Apply This to Your Life
As a manager, accountability starts with you. Hold yourself accountable for your team’s performance. If you want to create a culture of positive accountability, check in frequently with them, even when things are going well.
Good communication can help build a trusting relationship, and your team members won’t want to disappoint you. You can also show that you are committed to accountability by writing and sharing a list of things that they can expect from you. That way, they’ll see that you “walk the talk.”
By Elizabeth Eyre and the Mind Tools Team