Accountability. It requires a balance that many managers fail to achieve. Finding the balance between being too tough and too soft is something nobody is born with; it takes work.
Usually, we make the mistake of holding on to one or both of these hidden beliefs:
- We have a deeply held association between accountability and punishment — instead of considering it a tool to help people unlock their highest self.
- We have a deeply held assumption that accountability is a one-off event — rather than thinking it’s a long-term personal conversation between manager and employee.
Learning how to do accountability well is a skill. It draws on your powers of observation. It requires your curiosity to pick up on the bread crumbs most managers miss. It tests your emotional intelligence, because the best accountability challenges people to own their strengths more than correct their weaknesses. It calls for the best version of you, the one who cares far more about people than about money, profit, or deadlines. And, more than occasionally, for the sake of the health of the team and the “A players” on it, it requires you to be the bad guy.
It appears to be a paradox but it isn’t. Most of us have had at least one experience that illustrates true accountability. When someone in a position of authority in our life — a boss, a parent, a teacher — didn’t let us take the easy way out: “This is where you are right now. This is where you say you want to be. Based on what I’ve learned in my life, this is what it’s going to take to get there. Because I care about you, I see it as my job to let you know when you go off track.”
What would it look like to make it your mission to be “on it” with each person on your team? To give them the attention, the care, the *love*, that we all need to move through a stuck place. And it’s that kind of place, a place where accountability is not a word but is the DNA of the organization that ‘A’ players want to be at.
What REALLY creates a great place to work are the little things: the ways people communicate (or don’t); The way people kick the can (or don’t); The ways people show up on time and keep their agreements (or don’t). Leaders love to talk about wanting ‘A’ players, but they usually don’t think about or understand what ‘A’ players want.
‘A’ players don’t need a fancy mission statement. ‘A’ players to be where: Everyone is pulling their weight, holding themselves responsible, and the managers are holding everyone responsible for doing that.
So, how do you do it? Here’s a framework to get there.
The Accountability Dial
It has one purpose: to give a set of benchmarks so you don’t go to fast (too tough) or too slow (to soft). A map to locate where you and your team member is in the process.
Short and immediate feedback where you say what you see and check in early on to make sure everything is alright.
“Hey, I noticed [a concrete observation about their work]…is everything okay?”
An informal chat, usually in private, during which you help someone build more awareness around a particular issue..
“I’ve mentioned [concrete behaviors] to you a few times now…what’s the pattern here?”
The “we need to talk” meeting, where you place some urgency around the issue and the importance of dealing with it “[Concrete observations/behaviors] are impacting the team…let’s discuss how to resolve this.”
At some point, you will need to pull rank and outline the consequences of not following through. “if [concrete observations] don’t change, we may have to consider [possible consequences].”
If the situation requires it, the employee may get one last chance to improve. ‘This is your final warning. Let me lay this out for you…”
The dial is not a linear process — it can be turned up and down depending on the situation. For serious issues, you may jump immediately to The Conversation, or even The Limit.
But for many things, a few focused Mentions will do the job. That’s why it’s critical to build real-time feedback into your management style. However, I’m not suggesting you criticize — the ideal Mention is short, light, and comes from a place of genuine concern for the person.
Resisting the urge to solve the problem will feel unnatural. But it’s important that you get used to it.