How to Hold People Accountable

How to Hold People Accountable

In a previous article titled ‘Holding People Accountable‘, I argued that what establishes the conditions for willingness among employees is that they have the view that management is in a relationship with them to care for them and to provide them with an opportunity for growth.

Further, we established that to grow people was to give them the means, the ability and the accountability to do the task. By means, I would understand those things with which one would either add value, such as tools or add value, such as resources. 

Ability refers to the skill and knowledge required to do the task, and by accountability, I would understand consistent rewards and punishments related to the performance of a job. Before discussing holding people accountable, let’s first understand what accountability is.

What is Accountability?

Accountability is essential for achieving excellence, whether on an individual or organisational level. When people are held accountable, they are more likely to take responsibility for their actions, meet expectations, and deliver results. As a manager, having your team responsible is vital for improving performance, productivity, and outcomes.

However, it must be clear that what we put forward as accountability differs from holding people accountable for results. It is about keeping people responsible for what they should be contributing themselves. Very often, holding people accountable for results only cultivates the wrong behaviour by people and eventually creates conditions where the bad people get rewarded and the wrong people get punished.

Farmer Analogy 

Assume I am a farm owner with two farms run by a manager. The first manager is an exceptionally skilled and diligent farmer. He does all he can in the season to ensure a good crop. He ploughs at the right time, fertilises at the right time and goes out of his way to do all that is within his power for the crop to succeed. However, there was a terrible, wholly unexpected, and unseasonable hailstorm at the wrong time, and half the crop was lost. Even though the farmer did all he possibly could, the results of the enterprise could be better. The question here is whether it would still be fair to punish the farmer because the results were poor, and clearly, this would not be the case.

The second farmer is a lazy fellow, the proverbial verandah farmer, who whiles away his day on a rocker, his hat slung low over his eyes, his pipe clenched between his yellow teeth and a half jack of brandy nestling in his fist. He does not plough as he should, is very slapdash with his farming and generally tries to get out of the sun as quickly as possible. However, this is a lucky fellow because, this particular season, the weather is all on his side, and he gets a reasonable crop, although it could have been much better had he done what was required of him. The question is whether one should still reward him for the reasonable crop, and one’s immediate response would be that this would also be unfair. This fellow should be punished because he did not do what was required of him.

Holding People Accountable

Holding people accountable for results alone is tricky: If one were to have these two farmers responsible for the results alone, one would end up punishing the first farmer and rewarding the second. Suppose one transposes this thinking to an organisation. In that case, it becomes clear that using results as the critical measure for accountability creates conditions where the criteria for holding people accountable become entirely arbitrary. As a result, one cultivates both mediocrity and short-term thinking. It is impossible to assess whether a manager is jeopardising long-term viability for short-term success by examining the results alone. One can only make this assessment by reviewing what he is doing.

To hold people accountable for results is to disable them. If you get something, the thing you get comes from the other toward you. If you give something, then that which you are giving moves from you to the other. Of these two possibilities, you only have any power over what you offer because that sits in your hands. What you get sits in the hands of the other. The other has control over that, not you. If I hold you accountable for what you get, I focus your attention on the one you do not have power over. I disable you!

People should, therefore, be held accountable for what they do and not for what they get or the results of what they do. This is not to say that the results are irrelevant because that would be equally silly. 

We suggest that the relationship between accountability and results is complex, and this complexity patterns in four permutations:

Permutation 1: When people do what is required, and the results are positive, it indicates accountability. In such a scenario, the person should be rewarded, and the standard for the task should be raised. If a person is to grow, sticking to the previous standard would not be helpful.

Permutation 2: There are two possible reasons for poor results despite having accountability. The first is if the failure was due to something beyond the person’s control, like an act of God. The second possibility is that the task’s standard specification must be corrected, meaning you asked the person to do the wrong things. If so, you can review the requirements and make changes accordingly. However, in both cases, it’s still appropriate to reward the person. If you focus on results, you might avoid the underlying issue, so assessing the situation thoroughly is essential.

Permutation 3: Negative accountabilities, positive results. A person should face punishment or censure.

Permutation 4: Accountabilities and results are negative: The person should be censured or punished as appropriate.

Personal Excellence - Schuitema Group

The Benefits of Holding People Accountable

Before we dive into tactics, let’s look at why building accountability should be a priority:

  • Improves individual and team productivity.
  • When expectations are clear and progress is tracked, teams waste less time and complete more high-quality work.
  • Boosts morale through fairness: Consistent accountability policies create faith that poor performers won’t go unchecked.
  • Identifies problems early: Regular progress checks allow course correction before minor issues balloon.
  • Highlights achievement: Hitting markers along the way provides visibility into wins worthy of celebrating.
  • Facilitates open communication: Creating accountability requires clear, responsive communication around expectations.
  • Drives business results: By enabling course correction, accountability leads to better outcomes that impact the bottom line.

How to Hold People Accountable the Right Way

Accountability tactics like micromanaging can seem punitive rather than productive when executed poorly. Here are the best practices for making accountability work:

Set clear expectations

At the start of any project or important deliverable, ensure expectations around quality, scope, timelines, and communication are clearly defined and documented. Allow opportunity for questions.

Provide ongoing feedback

Be sure to provide feedback before the final deadline. Check in regularly on progress and point out small gaps between expectations and actuals early when easier to correct. Offer support.

Track measurable progress

Identify objective markers of success based on expectations set. Progress against metrics makes it clear when things are on track vs. when further intervention is required.

Have accountability policies

Define beforehand what consequences will be instituted when expectations are not met. Having defined policies removes subjectivity when they are needed.

Address the motivation gap

If someone consistently struggles with accountability, work to understand underlying reasons by asking questions, listening and getting curious about barriers. Lack of skill, clarity or motivation?

Allow accountability to start from within

The most potent accountability occurs when individuals hold themselves accountable. Support autonomy by focusing accountability conversations around agreeing on standards and discussing progress.

Offer rewards

Counterbalance consequences with positive reinforcement. Even small rewards help reinforce desired accountability behaviours.

Praise progress

While shortfalls require correction, remember to praise small and large successes. Positive reinforcement increases engagement and motivation.

Final Thoughts 

At its core, accountability is about owning your actions and outcomes. It means setting clear expectations, tracking progress against them, and following through with reasonable consequences.

Accountability isn’t just a task; it’s a strategy for empowerment. We can create a thriving environment that fosters success by fostering autonomy, recognising progress, and making accountability an integral part of our culture.

Arrange a consultation to discuss how we can help your organisation. 

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