Trying to Hold Your Employees Accountable? You Have to Make It a Process, Not a Slogan

By Bruce Tulgan

Accountability is a hot watchword in just about every business. But what does it really mean?

Simply put, accountability means having to answer for one’s actions. When business leaders chant the slogan of “accountability,” what they are trying to do is spread the following message to employees: behave knowing in advance that you will have to explain yourself and that your actions will have consequences.


Tie Real Consequences to Employee Performance

In order to make accountability work, it’s not enough to chant the slogan around the office and hope people get it.

There are two conditions that must be met in order to create real accountability in your organization.

First, accountability only works as a management tool if the employee knows in advance that they will have to answer for their actions. If you punish a person for their poor performance, without having told them in advance that their actions would be attached to punishments or rewards, it’s too late to affect their behavior.

Second, employees must trust and believe that there is a fair and accurate process for keeping track of their actions and tying their behavior to real consequences. Even if a manager tells their employees that performance is going to result in either reward or punishment in advance, that will never be meaningful if employees know that no one is actually keeping score.

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You Need a Fair and Accurate Process

Managers need a fair and accurate process for tying real consequences to each employee’s real concrete actions. What does that process look like?

There are three parts:

  1. Spell out expectations in advance in vivid terms. If a manager tells someone that great performance results in rewards, bad performance results in punishments, and average performance results in no consequence, it is up to that manager to define exactly what great, bad, and average performance look like.
  2. Track employee performance every step of the way. The key here is to come up with a process that is simple and repeatable. Make a checklist, or a log where you can note employee progress at every step. The most successful systems are usually the combined effort of the manager and the employee in question, where both people are tracking performance in a way that can be referred to later.
  3. Follow through with real consequences based on the employee’s actual performance. Once you have a record of employee performance, use that record as a guide. Compare the performance you’ve seen to the expectations you established at the beginning. Does the employee’s performance meet those expectations? Exceed them? If not, was it the fault of the employee, or the result of some outside factor? Determine whether rewards or punishments are warranted and be prepared to explain exactly why.


Don’t Wait Until the End of the Year – Make This an Ongoing Process

This process cannot be done once or twice a year, during formal performance evaluations or reviews. The process of creating real accountability has to be done up close and often. In the real world, of course, managers will encounter many complications that make it nearly impossible to maintain a totally airtight process linking individual actions to consequences. Don’t let those complications become excuses. It is possible to hold people accountable, even in a complex world.

Monitoring employees in this way likely seems daunting to most managers – when will they have the time to dedicate to this process on an ongoing basis? But rigorous performance tracking is one of the fundamentals of management that is so often overlooked, resulting in chronic undermanagement within an organization. And undermanagement costs more time than anything else.

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