How to Hold Employees Accountable

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I have been asked multiple times, by frustrated business owners, how to hold people accountable for their work. It is one of the biggest challenges, yet one of the most misunderstood concepts in the business world. When I started asking people what they thought about the issue, I heard a lot of absolutes in their beliefs and approaches to accountability. A common theme that arose was that most people seemed to think it was a “do what I ask/say or else” scenario, which I believe is the absolute wrong way to go about accountability.

The first problem with the “do what I say” approach is that accountability isn’t about doing anything! Accountability is about achieving mutually agreed upon results/outcomes, not simply about completing a task (although completing tasks is obviously part of getting results). You and your team should be working at how to be accountable for results, not just completing tasks.

The second problem with this approach is that most teams that I talk to simply don’t know how to be accountable. They just don’t understand the concept, and their misunderstanding is often magnified by their leaders incorrect approach of “holding them accountable”. What I have found over the years is that the best way to hold someone accountable is to teach them how to BE accountable. If you have to “hold” them accountable or “call them on it”, then you have likely already lost the battle and will end up with the dreaded lose-lose situation instead of a win-win.

Teaching people how to be accountable will take some time, but it is always worth it because they will improve for you on a steady basis long before they get to owning their accountability. The steps are fairly simple and straight-forward, just like most fundamentals of business. The key is to decide whether you want to be a great task master or a great leader.

Step one is setting expectations for the results/outcomes you expect from each person. Since accountability is all about outcomes, you have to clearly define what you are expecting. The second step is the most obvious, but also the least utilized – you have to now share your expectations with your team! The third step is the most important, and it is what makes accountability work – you have to get the employees commitment to achieve the outcomes you are requesting as their personal goal/target. Without the team buying into the expectations, you will just be beating your head against the proverbial wall trying to hold them accountable to something they never agreed to do for you in the first place! This might take a discussion or two, you may have to help them understand how they can achieve what you are asking, and you will need to ensure that you provide the tools and environment for them to succeed.

Now that you have defined the expectations, shared them and received a commitment from your team to perform to these expectations, it is time to start teaching them how to be accountable to their agreement. Some people get it from day one, others take time and coaching, all need you to be a great leader for them.

Here are some of my favorite coaching methods for helping people to be accountable. First, catch them doing well, even if it is just them trying. Ask them how they are doing in relation to their commitments. Ask them what help/support they need, what is preventing them from meeting their goals/targets/commitments. The key to success is getting their participation in the discussions, so be sure to ask then listen. If they don’t know, tell them it’s ok, and ask them what they think. Ask them to recall what you talked about last time. The key to all employee coaching is to get them talking so that they take ownership of their own development and success. If they forget something, that’s ok, have them think back to the last time it was discussed, help them to do their own recall – don’t do it for them.

The bottom line for accountability is that “holding people accountable” is difficult to do, and establishes an adversarial relationship where someone wins and the other loses, while “helping people be accountable” is much easier and establishes a trusting supportive win-win relationship.

Author: Mark McNulty, Louisville Business Coach


How to Hold Employees Accountable