The Accountability Trap

One of the big buzzwords these days is "accountability," as in "hold your people accountable!" The problem, however, is that people, namely management, forget the second part of the equation: if you are going to hold your people accountable, you have to give them the freedom and the tools to get the job done.

And that means not hamstringing them with limited resources, limited authority, or interfering with their work.

Employees don’t mind being held accountable. They relish the challenge, and will almost always surprise you with what they can accomplish. But every employee hates being held "accountable" for things they cannot control.

We’ve all seen this: the boss calls an employee into his office, assigns a project, and tells the employee he has full responsibility and will be held accountable for the success or failure of the final outcome. The employee starts off strong, but three weeks later the project is mired in problems, confusion, and is stalled. The employee in charge is discouraged, knowing he is going to get blamed for the mess. After all, he was told he would be held fully "accountable."

So what happened? First, the boss couldn’t keep his hands off the project. He made "helpful" changes. The three employees assigned to assist somehow dwindled down to one. The budget was cut.

Sound familiar? It happens all the time. Typically, the "accountable" employees handle it in one of two ways: they scream at the top their lungs in protest, or they quietly give up in frustration. Either way, when the axe falls it’s their neck.

Look, if we’re going to get buy-in with the whole "hold your people accountable" theory, there are four essential things we have to do as managers:

First, spell out exactly what the goal is. Be exact, be clear, be realistic. Telling your sales manager to "increase sales" is meaningless. Telling him to "triple sales" is unrealistic. Setting the precise goal of a 13% increase in three months is better. Of course, as the boss, you have researched the goal pretty thoroughly and have a clear idea of what’s possible and what isn’t. Right?

Second, assign the resources needed to accomplish the job. Don’t say, "Ask Bob in accounting to help out." Instead say, "Bob will be helping you three hours each morning." Don’t say, "We’ll try to get you a little extra in the budget for expenses." Say instead, "The budget for the project is $11,560."

Third, get out of the way. Either let your employee handle it as he sees fit, or do it yourself. This is by far the hardest part for managers to understand. Every manager, at heart, believes he can do things better than his subordinates. The temptation to meddle is hard to resist. But if you start interfering in the kitchen, don’t blame the chef when the soufflê falls flat.

Fourth, support the employee if things are going wrong. If your employee comes back and complains that Bob in accounting is blowing him off, a little backup is in order. This might be a short note to Bob that if he values his job, he WILL be helping out as planned. If accounting is dribbling out the project funds and making the employee jump through ridiculous hoops, then a short note to accounting is in order. The point here is to ensure that the employee is getting the resources you promised him. Fail him in this and it’s not fair to later hold him responsible if the project fails.

Personally, I believe the whole "hold your people accountable" thing has become a convenient way to scapegoat hapless employees. When I hear managers complaining about a failed project and see them puffing out their chests and proclaiming that "George will be held accountable!" I always want to talk to George and get the other side of the story. As HR managers, we owe employees that much at least. And, quite often, we’ll find that the employee was crippled somewhere along the line by poor management.