How Do You Hold People Accountable?

Larry Sternberg on Monday, November 12 2012, 04:01 PM
For many years I had a client whose culture was averse to holding people accountable. Managers knew there would be no consequences if they didn’t address performance issues or if they didn’t implement a company-wide directive or if they didn’t achieve their departmental goals. Despite a genuine, intense desire to improve, the sought after improvement (which requires change) was extremely difficult to achieve. There was an tremendous amount of inertia in the company.

It’s dangerous and intellectually unacceptable to reach general conclusions from a single anecdote such as the story I just told. But it’s also self-limiting to refuse to learn from one’s experiences in life. The theme of this post propounds four principles: 1) top performers welcome accountability, 2) accountability must be accompanied by clear expectations, 3) accountability must be accompanied by empowerment, and 4) the consequences of meeting or not meeting expectations must be tailored to suit the situation.

Top performers welcome accountability.

Accountability is motivational for top performers. They are confident in their capabilities. They thrive in situations where they know the consequences of exceeding or not meeting expectations.

Accountability must be accompanied by clear, challenging expectations.

Top performers are motivated by expectations that challenge them, that require them to stretch, that are difficult to achieve. They want to know that their supervisor is confident that they’re capable of achieving goals that others cannot. And they crave the intrinsic satisfaction experienced when they attain those goals. In fact, some top performers thrive on doing things others say cannot be done. And the more clarity you can bring to expectations the easier it is for everyone. Ideally there are objective metrics attached to the expectations.

Accountability must be accompanied by empowerment.

If you’re going to hold someone accountable for meeting certain expectations, you must allow them to decide HOW they will go about achieving those results. If an employee or a team is merely carrying out your directions about the how, you’re the owner of the results, not them.

The consequences of meeting or not meeting expectations must be tailored to suit the situation.

It’s best to have objective metrics and clear consequences for exceeding expectations and for not exceeding them. But that just sets the stage. It’s also important to understand why the expectations were met or not. There is some art involved in determining consequences. This cannot be reduced to a formula.

For instance, suppose an employee fails drastically to meet expectations. The reason for this failure must be considered. Did she fail to put in enough effort? Did she bring this to someone’s attention and ask for help? Is it the case that the expectations don’t align with her strengths? Is this failure an anomaly or is this a course of conduct? Was there an unforeseeable event that had a material impact on her ability to produce her results?

Supervisors can easily err on both sides of this issue. If you pull the trigger too soon you can lose an employee who can add a great deal of value over time, and you can create fear in your workforce. If you continue to accept excuses for not meeting expectations you wind up carrying unproductive people, thereby negatively impacting your customers, your employees and your company.

So it’s important to hold people accountable. But it’s also important to ensure that the consequences are thoughtfully tailored to each situation.
Thanks for reading. As always, I’d love to hear your comments.
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