3 ways to build accountability on your team

If your staff is missing deadlines, not following through on work, not taking responsibility for mistakes, or simply not producing high-quality work, you’ve probably got an accountability problem. Here’s how to fix it.

1. Talk explicitly about your expectations – not just about what people do but also how they do it. Managers often make the mistake of having a whole set of expectations for how employees will behave but keeping that information to themselves – and then being frustrated or surprised when employees don’t act in accordance with those expectations, even though they never shared them. But unless you manage a team of mind readers, part of your job as a manager is to do the work of getting your team aligned with what you expect from them.

Some of this happens in the hiring process, of course – you screen for people who have a strong work ethic, take initiative, exercise ownership, and so forth. But a large amount of expectation-setting also needs to happen afterwards, as well. For instance, if you’ll get antsy if people aren’t responding to emails within a business day, tell them that. If your deadlines of “by the end of the day” really mean “by 5 p.m.,” be explicit about that. Whatever your expectations, get them out of your head and articulate them for your team. Otherwise, you’ll end up frustrated that people aren’t performing in the way that you want, and your team will end up frustrated that they’ll be held to standards they were never told about.

2. Give feedback when you see things you like and things you don’t like. Too often, managers keep their thoughts about employees to themselves. They’ll be impressed and delighted at how a staff member handles tricky clients – and might even praise her to others – but neglect to tell the staff member directly how great her approach is (or even better, specifics of what makes it so great). Or they’ll be annoyed that a staff member always turns in unpolished work, but never actually tell the employee, “When drafts come to me, they should be fully polished and ready for publication, which means no proofing errors and no fact-checking still left to be done.” That can lead to employees not feeling accountable for the types of things the manager would like them accountable for. Which leads us to…

3. Ensure that actions have consequences – both good and bad. If people feel like great work goes unrecognized, over time they’re less likely to continue going out of their way to do truly exceptional work. And if people feel like great work isn’t recognized but problems are always called out, people will wonder how it is that you always notice the bad without seeming to observe the good, and then you’ve got a recipe for plummeting morale on your hands. It’s important to ensure that you’re providing recognition and rewards when things go well, as well as consequences when they don’t.

And keep in mind that “consequences” for problematic performance doesn’t have to mean something formal, like a write-up or disciplinary action (and those things can often be overkill). Rather, a consequence can simply be a conversation with you, asking about what happened and what the plan is for avoiding it in the future. On a healthy staff, that should often be all the consequence you need to reinforce accountability and get things back on track. (Of course, there will be times when that doesn’t solve the problem, and then you’d escalate in seriousness from there – but that’s usually the right place to start.)

Originally published at Intuit Quickbase.

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Alter_ego*

    I’m glad you pointed out the need to be specific. We have one project manager who loves to give us false deadlines, and non specific deadlines. So the calander will say that a job is due on Tuesday. And sometimes that means the job is going out at 5 on Tuesday. Sometimes it means it’s going out at 7 am Wednesday. And sometimes it means it’s just a progress set, and it’s not going out until Thursday but “I wanted to make sure you got it done on time”, which is something we love hearing after having stayed until 1 am the night before to get it finished for Tuesday. And this particular manager gets really huffy if you ask for clarification about when, exactly, a project is going out, because he sees it as us trying to get away with procrastinating and doing as little work as possible, rather than acknowledging that every engineer is working on up to 5 or 6 projects at any given time, and we’re just trying to prioritize our time, not procrastinate.

    1. Mike C.*

      I hope you and your coworkers continue to push back against this sort of behavior. Directly address these feelings of “procrastination/doing as little work as possible” because you’re all adults and professionals and should be treated as such. Part of that is being trusted enough to manage a deadline.

      Ugh, what a jackass.

  2. Mike C.*

    I often find that the lack of explicit expectations takes the form of “well it’s common sense/everyone knows this/you’d have to be an idiot not to get this” type attitudes. Then rather than just blurting out the answer (aka the expectation) they get stuck on that loop and get increasingly upset that the employee isn’t “getting it”.

    Look, there are likely tens of thousands of items most of us would call “common sense”, but we’re all missing a few. Stop being held back by the idea someone should have already known, and just tell them.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      If employees have worked in a few places they realize that sometimes there is more than one way to do something. Some companies prefer method A and some companies prefer method B.

      What I LOVE (not) is when a boss insists that there is NO other way to do something and then informs me that “No, other companies do not use another method.” Really? All I asked was do you prefer I use method A or B? That is all I asked, I will use the method you say to use. No need to lecture, honest.
      This discourages people from asking questions.

  3. voluptuousfire*

    Alison, I love your practical advice. My former manager kept her expectations to herself to a certain extent. She would often would indicate things by the tone of her voice or hint at what she wanted but never actually said how things were to be handled. One could very easily miss what she was getting at and not doing what was expected was a mental check in the “no” column. She was brand new at managing people and I don’t think really had the chops to manage people well. (Not due to inexperience. She was great at problem solving and logistics but didn’t possess the ability to manage relationships with subordinates very well.)

  4. Steve G*

    Problem is, some of us need advice on how to keep managers accountable. when a manager does work their subordinate should be doing and/or avoids their larger or most inconvenient responsibilities but holds everyone else up to a very high standard, morale takes a hit. Not that I am talking about any specific situation….:-)

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