This article was based on episode 138 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get the full episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase full episode guides at themodernmanager.com/shop.
For years, accountability was measured in large part by time in the office. If you’re physically present, you must be working, the logic went. But with the shift to remote work, and the proliferation of distractions available even when sitting at a computer, “face time” is no longer a reasonable proxy for “working,” if it ever was.
Some managers have shifted to focus on accountability for results. While accomplishing goals or impact is critical to an organization success, it’s not the only area of accountability that matters. Instead, managers should think of accountability across four domains: Results, Responsibilities, Behavior and Growth.
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR RESULTS
Did you achieve the results you set out to accomplish? This may be a simple question, but the answer is often not simple at all. Setting goals creates the benchmark, but we aren’t always in control of the outcomes. It depends on whether you’ve written impact, output or process goals.
Output goals target the compilation of a project whereas impact goals focus on the results of those efforts. This is the difference between a goal of hosting 5 convenings and a goal of positioning our company as an expert in the field. We could host those convenings, but still not be recognized as an expert.
When you hold someone accountable for results, be sure you’re clear whether they are truly accountable for completing the activity or realizing the impact.
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR RESPONSIBILITIES
Did you manage the activities you are responsible for as part of your role? Unlike results which are aligned with goals, responsibility is focused on recurring activities that are part of the job. Many times we write goals only for the big, new, exciting stuff and not on the day-to-day activities that keep the ship afloat.
For example, a small startup team may not have one person whose entire job is customer support. Instead, triaging customer help inquiries is one of many responsibilities that the administrative assistant manages. A more robust customer service team might set goals for decreasing response time or increasing customer satisfaction, but in this case, simply ensuring that customers receive a response is all they can handle. It’s too minor an activity to warrant a goal at this time, but also critically important to maintaining customers.
When you hold someone accountable for responsibilities, you're focused on ensuring your team members are adequately managing the activities or responsibilities that fall within their job description, role or domain of expertise.
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR BEHAVIOR
Did you act in alignment with our company and team values? For too long, managers have allowed “high performers” to get away with bad behavior. How someone shows up every day and interacts with their colleagues matters to the overall performance of the team and the culture you’re cultivating. In addition, accountability for behavior addresses how the work is being done. Are deadlines being met and processes being followed?
When you hold someone accountable for behavior, you consider how the person manages themselves, how they interact with colleagues, and how they follow policies, processes and procedures.
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR GROWTH OR DEVELOPMENT
Did you grow and develop the competencies, skills, and knowledge needed to succeed in your role and your career? In this case, we are elevating the importance of learning and development. Effective managers will help identify areas of growth, but if we don’t also support a growth plan and manage accountability for that growth, we’ve fallen short as the manager.
ACCOUNTABILITY IS A REINFORCING LOOP
Holding someone accountable not about punishing them for doing something wrong or missing the mark. It’s not a power play where you’re in charge and set the rules, and they have to comply. Accountability is about creating a natural loop of expectations and reinforcement. If we don’t set expectations, we can’t hold someone accountable. If we set expectations but never follow up, we’ve essentially shown that we don’t take those expectations seriously, in which case, why should the other person care. We need to close the loop to both celebrate and reinforce when the person has lived up to the commitment and investigate what went wrong when they didn’t. Accountability is never about blame or punishment. Accountability is about taking ownership and figuring out how to do (even) better going forward.
To manage the accountability loop, start by being clear about the expectations. What may seem obvious to us may not be so obvious to someone else. Setting expectations, whether those are goals, norms, or a professional development plan can and should be a collaborative process.
Once you’re both aligned on expectations, hold check-ins where you assess whether those expectations are being met. This should happen both in real time when there’s an issue and at regularly scheduled check-ins or one-on-ones. Don’t forget to celebrate and offer praise as well as investigate what went wrong.
There are many reasons why we miss the mark including a person’s skill or capability, their capacity or resources available, lack of motivation, fear, a change of context or shift in the situation, misunderstandings, lack of awareness, a process problem, or almost anything else. Getting clear on the root cause will allow you to work together with them to find a solution that can reduce the chances of this type of miss happening again.
Enter an accountability conversation with a sense of curiosity. For those of us who’d rather avoid confrontation and conflict (like myself), this can immediately make the conversation more palatable and less scary. Instead of worrying about hurting the person’s feelings or triggering their defenses, I focus on my opportunity to uncover the root cause and help them do better next time. It is in these conversations, whether recognizing the positive work that’s been done or addressing bumps and misses along the way, that true accountability happens.
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This article was based on episode 138 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.