Leadership Superpowers – Accountability

I’m kicking off a new series called Leadership Superpowers. This series will be a little different from the norm because it will not be done consecutively. Instead, it will be interspersed with other types of articles in the coming months. This series will focus on the most impactful things that a leader can contribute to an organization. I’m calling them superpowers because they have the ability to transform an entire organization when embraced. The first superpower on my list is the ability to hold people accountable.

Most of us have had the misfortune to work in a place where leadership did not do a good job of holding employees accountable. We’ve seen how poorly things work when employees cannot be counted on to deliver good work in a timely fashion. You’ve may have felt that you had to be Superman in order to accomplish anything meaningful. You may have even started to believe the old saying that says ‘if you want something done right you have to do it yourself’.

Interestingly, the process of holding people accountable is not terribly difficult. People who cannot handle conflict very well may struggle with it, but leadership is a poor career choice for that type of person to begin with. I’m going to walk us through a typical cycle of feedback and accountability. I can say with confidence that leaders who cannot do what is described below are part of the problem rather than the solution.

The first thing that a leader needs to do is set expectations. This needs to be done at both the team and individual level. It is imperative that every member of the team understands exactly what quality of work is expected of them and how closely they must adhere to timeframe expectations. This step is critical but is the one that many leaders miss completely. I’m not talking about scorecard goals and year end reviews here. I’m talking about good old fashioned expectations. What do you want from them? Don’t be shy. If you build it they will come and if you ask for it they will deliver.

In addition, if you haven’t set clear expectations then it is much more difficult to establish any kind of real accountability. What are they accountable to, some mystery rule? How can you discipline someone for not doing something they were never told to do in the first place? Were they supposed to read the leader’s mind? That’s not fair. As leaders we must hold people accountable, and we must set the expectation clearly so that everyone knows what they will be held accountable for.

After you set expectations it is time to leave the employee alone. That’s right, you aren’t supposed to use all of your time looking over their shoulder forcing them to do it exactly the way that you would do it. That would be a huge waste of your time, why pay an employee to do something that you’re going to spend the same amount of time on? By backing off you give the employee has the chance to own it. If they need your help then they are responsible to ask for it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with checking in for status updates, particularly on an important assignment. But you need to give your employee space to show you what they can do.

So let’s say that the assignment came in on time, but it was really shoddy work. Here’s where it gets interesting. You know you have to hold them accountable, here’s how you do it. The first step does not come with an option. You need to broach the topic with the employee as soon as possible. You do not want to let it linger. Excess time between the point of the infraction and the time you give feedback serves to water down the impact of the feedback and increase your stress at delivering it. This is cut and dry. The employee’s job is to deliver quality work. When he doesn’t do that it becomes your job to deliver the feedback on time.

In my experience I’ve found that it’s best to start by asking questions. This allows you to get a full picture of the circumstances before playing your hand. The last thing you want to do is deliver performance feedback to someone who’s just lost a loved one, so it’s best to tread lightly when starting. You may learn any number of things that surprise you or make you feel sorry for the employee. Almost everyone will have an excuse. Most of them will make it difficult to do what you set out to do. This is where you need to persevere. If you set your expectations clearly then the employee knew what was expected well before their excuse existed. There are very few cases that would have prevented them from letting you know ahead of time that there was going to be a problem and why. If they had done that then you could have taken action to mitigate the situation. If they didn’t (and it’s not something horrible like a death) then you are honor bound to deliver the appropriate feedback.

This is where you have options. Your first option is to give them a firm talking to and use the situation as a learning experience. Everyone deserves a learning experience or two before real disciplinary action is taken. If they’ve already had a warning or two then it is very important to start them on whatever official disciplinary system that your company has in place. Failing to do so reveals that you are all bark and no bite. No matter what you choose to do you should document it in writing (even if it’s the “learning experience”). At some point you may decide that the employee is better off leaving the company. At that point the documentation you have generated from this feedback process will be critical.

The last step here is to explain specifically what could have been better. Maybe they should have called you a couple of days early and warn let you know that they were running behind. Maybe they could have checked in to make sure they were meeting your quality expectations with the work they had done up to that point. Whatever the case is, you don’t want to deliver feedback without explaining what could have been done to accomplish a better outcome. Remind them that you aren’t there to punish them and make their life hard. You’re trying to help them succeed. If they are willing to take your advice to heart it will lead them to much greater success as a member of your team, both now and in the future.

See how simple that is? Following this process consistently leads to so many different benefits. First, it improves the overall performance of the individual. Second, it is noticed by the other members of your team who are likely to work a little harder to avoid the same feedback. Third, it increases your team’s respect for you. You aren’t a pushover. Fourth, it shows your A+ employees that you aren’t taking it easier on the others and gives them a reason to stick it out with you. On the other hand, if you fail to do this you will engender the opposite set of feelings. Your employees will not respect you, people will be less likely to work hard and people will be looking for ways out of your department so they can go somewhere where people aren’t all treated the same regardless of performance.

The fact of the matter is that the person who’s holding others accountable will never be the most popular person in the room. People who cannot deal with that fact should probably not take roles in leadership. A good manager will never be remembered like a close friend. Instead, the manager who holds people accountable will be remembered more like a military drill sergeant. The recruits may have hated him at the time but when they look back with the wisdom of age under their belts they will realize that the lessons they learned from him kept them alive and made them better people.

If you are a leader today or aspire to be a leader in the future I encourage you to manage your staff with integrity and hold your employees accountable to real expectations. A manager like this is like a parent who disciplines their children fairly and consistently. They will be rewarded in the long term for their sacrifices in the short term.

Thanks for reading. Be Blessed.


Posted on July 16, 2011, in Leadership Development and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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