Holding people accountable – Strategies for leaders

Holding people accountable – Strategies for leaders

Holding people accountable


If you are in a leadership role, you will need to delegate work to be done by other people. True leaders work to guide those other people to success. They ensure that everyone in their team is performing at their best, doing the work they have been assigned, and doing it well.

After all, managers want people to follow instructions and get the best results, but they don't want to micro-manage. Ultimately, it's about striking a balance. Of assigning tasks and holding people accountable, while giving critique without micromanaging their every move. Especially in the complex knowledge-work that so many of us perform, where the complexity itself means that exceptions, problems and breakdowns are an inevitable part of the process.

Yet many managers fail to hold their people accountable.

Why? These managers will usually say something along the lines of:

“I want to avoid conflict”

“I want my team to like me”

“If I hired the right person, they will do a good job” or simply:

“I don’t know how”.

However, the only way to get work done by other people is to set expectations and hold them accountable for results. If not done properly, this can cause rework, project delays, bad team morale and a reduction in motivation and performance.

Most people think of accountability as responsibility. They ask: whose fault is it? But accountability isn’t about simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. Accountability isn’t responsibility.

Accountability is the ability to give an account 

It’s about delivering on a commitment.

To tell a story and have a conversation about the situation in an open and honest way.

What is often missing in holding people accountable is the learning focus.

Managers should frame accountability as a chance to learn, by offering people a psychologically safe opportunity to give an account, using team learning conversations to work out what went wrong and discuss what can be done differently next time. Was it that you took over the control of the project, focused on your team’s effort instead of the outcome, or did you sugar-coat instead of giving constructing criticism, or perhaps didn’t make it safe for others to speak up about things they could see that you couldn’t?

Ask yourself and your team: what conversations can we have next time that we didn't have this time?

Again, discussing accountability isn't about putting anyone at fault, it's about identifying what was missing in the shared conversation process and learning from it.

It's about allowing the person accountable to give an account of how the commitment was managed in conversation.

This can come back to the language of managing commitments. Were promises made unreliably, without the opportunity to negotiate? did we fail to see the need to check-in along the way? Was it less about listening for satisfaction, and more about “ticking the box?” If something wasn't delivered, have a conversation, practice and improve.

As a leader, it is your job to put in place the things that promote a sense of accountability within your team and to solve the common problems that reduce that feeling.

So, how do we foster accountability in the people around us?

Firstly, we need to set clear expectations. Be clear to your team about the outcome you are looking for, how you will measure success and how your team should go about achieving the objective. Give them a safe and realistic opportunity to speak up about anything they can see is missing at this point.

We also need to be clear about the capabilities required for the task. If the person doesn’t have the skills and resources needed to fulfil the commitment, and cannot acquire what is missing you may need to delegate it to someone else.

Giving honest, ongoing, clear feedback is critical. Your team should know where they stand, so take notice of what they are doing and check in periodically. When doing so, keep in mind that it is more important to be helpful than nice. Better still, generate a culture where they actively seek feedback instead of waiting for you to give it. You can do this if you lead by example and ask for feedback yourself.

If people don’t see the consequences when they fail to deliver, they probably won’t feel much accountability in the future. That is why following through with consequences is so important. Giving transparent feedback about the person’s performance relative to the goals will motivate them to do better next time. When doing this, remember that for most of us, most of the time, negative feedback produces an initial negative reaction. Effective leaders know this, and they also know how to move with their team members out of negative emotional territory and back into the moods for learning together.

Remember that you don’t want to create accountability by being mean or scary. It isn’t about blaming anyone or holding anyone to a fault – you just want your team to have a clear view of what you expect.

However, if managers frame the accountability conversation as an opportunity for learning – for themselves, the person and the team – great results can be achieved, in learning where improvements can be made in the future on every level: personal, within the team, and for the team leader.

Approaching it this way creates a safe space where people will feel comfortable to speak up and in turn thrive within their teams.

Not sure where to begin?

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Find out how we do it at V-Teamwork.