Accountability: This time it's personal


Holding other people accountable for results is one of the most common challenges managers face. That’s probably because it’s impossible – we can’t make other people be accountable; the manager’s real task is to create the conditions where people feel accountable.

When it comes to performance management, people tend to make one of two types of mistakes. We either tend to handhold or micromanage or we tend to give people too much latitude and enough rope to hang with. In the first type of error, we are so focused on short-term results that we neglect to see the negative impact on long-term possibilities. By doing too much oneself, we deprive people of opportunities to learn so that they are positioned to increase their future contributions. In the second type of mistake, we are incorrectly assessing people’s ability to handle the task or distancing ourselves due to discomfort with having to confront lack of results. In the first instance there’s not enough trust in others; in the second there is too much.

Getting to the point where you can trust your people to do their best without your oversight (where they are accountable) is a huge managerial feat to accomplish. It requires several other managerial activities competencies: the ability to accurately assess the strengths and weaknesses of others, the ability to assess the requirements of the task, and the perspective to understand how these two things intersect. It also demands that we can run interference between short-term gains in long-term aims. Can you risk a potential shortfall on this project in the interest of developing your talent pool?

Managers also need to have self-insight regarding their preferences and styles as they relates to risk, conflict, and personal style. Communication is also paramount. It is possible for a manager who prefers to be hands-on to manage the performance of the direct report who prefers to operate autonomously, as long as they arrive at agreed-upon operating procedures regarding when and how to provide one other updates. Communication regarding rewards, consequences, and contingency plans is equally important. Discussing relative urgency and subservience to other tasks and projects is also relevant here. Managers who tend to be intense and proclaim urgency about every item will soon find that people make their own distinctions about what to prioritize. This also underscores the importance of taking time for strategic planning and involving people in the process. We all need to see that tasks and projects are not linear and summative, but dynamic and interrelated. When people understand how what they do impacts their colleagues’ performance and that of the organization, they are more strongly motivated to do their part.

Accountability is personal. When people understand the parameters, appreciate the import, and can connect  the dots, you can trust that they will hold themselves accountable for meeting expectations. When expectations are realistic, mutually understood, and communicated in a manner that conveys the value of meeting them, people will naturally strive to succeed.