How to foster accountability in the workplace

“How do I make my people more accountable?”

As a management consultant, I get this question all the time.

In fact, I’d have to say that in general, making people more accountable is one of the top aspirations of technical managers. So it’s worth answering the question here as simply as I can.

Here it goes: You can’t make your people accountable. Get over it. It’s that simple.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Threaten them.

  • Bully them.

  • Micromanage them.

  • Beg them.

  • Offer them incentives.

  • Praise them.

But none of these things produces accountability. The list can go on and on, but it won’t get you to accountability.

The problem is not that we managers lack the creativity and energy required to make people accountable.

It’s that accountability isn’t something that managers can mandate. It’s not something managers can enforce.

It’s something that subordinates feel. It’s a mental and emotional state, not some condition that managers impose.

There’s no magical formula for making anyone feel this way.

So how does it happen? Real accountability occurs when employees believe these things:

  • Their work matters.

  • They have substantial control over their ability to succeed or fail.

  • The quality and timeliness of the work is important.

  • The rewards and consequences that result from their work are fair.

  • They have reasonable influence on the evaluation of their work.

A manager’s ability to make someone feel these things is extremely limited. But knowing that they can influence some feelings, managers sometimes try to enforce accountability by manipulating people’s emotions. So how can you as a manager try to foster certain feelings in your subordinates? Here are some things you can do:

  • Try to make them frightened.

  • Try to make them feel intimidated.

  • Make them feel that you mistrust their abilities and/or motives.

  • Encourage them to feel more powerful than you.

  • Encourage them to be greedy.

  • Try to make them feel loved and/or respected.

But none of these emotions engenders genuine accountability, and few of them would qualify as productive.

Employees must choose accountability. You can offer it, but they must decide whether to accept it. And you can’t force them to do so. The best you can do is to try to create an environment that encourages them to make that choice. Here’s how:

  • Communicate the importance of work.

  • Structure work to give people control over their own success.

  • Recognize and reward outstanding work.

  • Ensure that rewards and consequences are consistently and fairly meted out and are proportional to success or failure.

  • Take reasonable extenuating circumstances into account.

  • Structure work in such a way that people owe things to one another rather to the supervisor.

But again, you can only encourage them to choose accountability; you can’t mandate that choice.

Even now, I can hear your protest: “I can discipline people if they screw up.” True, but even if done well, discipline is only one means of engendering accountability. It’s not the whole enchilada. More important, an employee who really feels accountable punishes herself for a failure more than you can punish her. Trying to make geeks feel things tends to be counterproductive. We don’t like to be manipulated.

So give up on that dream of making people accountable, and start thinking about how you can make accountability a compelling offer. An invitation is the best you’re going to be able to muster. Make it enticing.

For tips on how to get the best out of bright employees, click here.

For some tips on how to deal with slackers at work, click here.

Paul Glen is the founder of the GeekLeaders.com Web community and author of the award-winning bookLeading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology(Jossey-Bass, 2003). Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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