When it comes to managing people, the #1 response to the question: What’s the hardest part of managing people? is, Holding Them Accountable.
Why is this so difficult?
Over 16 years of training managers and leading people I’ve had my fair share of doing it wrong so that I could figure it out and do it right. And more than right. NAIL IT!
I say this without any conceit or ego. The truth to getting it right was a culmination of:
1. Feedback from people I’ve managed
2. Reading a gazillion books on leadership and management
3. Self awareness and self development toward mastery and excellence of management and people skills
4. Laser focused development of my emotional intelligence
Okay, so probably not a gazillion books. A lot would be more accurate. I’m a thirsty reader and this is the way I like to learn best. My preference is to read concepts and ideas from forward thought leaders. I take their ideas and put them into practice leveraging my personality and strengths. Then I mould what I’ve learned into what serves the individual best.
This has built, for me, a deep and varied toolbox of managerial skills that always suits what the individual needs and it has taken me time and energy and patience and mistakes and wins and losses, to get right.
My life’s purpose is to be able to share my experiences with others and offer tips that will push you forward faster; tribal knowledge is an amazing thing to be able to absorb. I’ve had a rich tribe that has done this for me. My mission is to continue to give this back into my community of change makers!
Accountability is NOT about catching someone doing something wrong and then getting them in trouble. Yes, this sounds like something a kid would say. “I’m telling mom! I’m going to get you in trouble!” Management is NOT parenting; even though the similarities are shocking, it is absolutely not the same thing.
The most substantial of differences is that employees are not your children. You did not raise them. You did not teach them the foundation of their beliefs. You did not see them through the trails, tribulations, successes, and lessons of their most formative years. This means that you are NOT responsible for their beliefs, their emotions, their behaviours.
As the manager, you are responsible for the environment that you create for your people and your team, in the workplace. You are responsible for upholding expectations that everyone understands deeper than a signature at the bottom of a job profile or company policy. You are responsible for catching people doing things right and recognizing their excellence. You are responsible for noting when people violate an expectation, break a promise, or behave badly, and stepping into the conversation to discover why they chose to behave in that way.
Rule #1: People are not bad, however sometimes they behave badly.
Making the distinction between bad people and bad behaviour is key to holding people accountable. If you are in judgement of the person based on their behaviour, accountability conversations will always go poorly. Pre-judgement of ‘why’ under only 1 possible reason, means you’re missing other plausible possibilities and are about to blame and shame them.
Blaming and shaming another person sabotages and destroys relationships.
The foundational emotional intelligence skills to do this is a combination of emotional self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal relationships. Development in these 3 areas ensures that you avoid this trap of blaming and shaming. Instead you learn how to foster incredibly deep connections that elevate your people to perform at their highest possible levels!
Rule #2: Never assume the previous manager set expectations.
Even if they did a good job of it, you’re the manager now. It’s your responsibility to lay the foundation of expectations based on your management philosophy and style. Doing so sets the tone between you and each of your employees. Doing so also sets an expectation standard that is consistent for everyone of your employees. No favourites. No one gets to modify an expectation to suit their beliefs. The only time exceptions are made are under special circumstances that dictate this must happen; for which proper employment documentation is completed.
When you assume the previous manager set expectations, you leave a giant loophole in holding people accountable.
Just see what happens when you try to hold someone accountable and include “You signed your job profile, as did your previous manager. Didn’t you cover these things off to know what you’re responsible for?” I guarantee the response will sound similar to “No.”
Dead. In. The. Water.
I have used this practice for years and every new employee that I’ve on-boarded has responded in the same way:
Þ ‘My previous manager never did anything like this.’
Þ ‘This makes it very clear as to what you’re expecting.’
Þ ‘I’m not sure I know how to do (insert emotional intelligence skill).’
Þ ‘This is going to make so many things a lot easier.’
Þ ‘This is really going to challenge me; I feel as though I might fail before I get it right.’
All of these above comments come in the same conversation. And every one of them is accurate. This is the essence of laying a foundation of trust. Acknowledgement of their fears after they speak them is an opportunity to connect deeply and deposit into their trust bank.
“You know, Jane, doing this with you is important because my management philosophy is the person first, then the work. Remember when I shared this with you? My goal is to make sure that you have every tool you need to be successful and to guide your growth and development to contribute at the highest levels possible for you. In order to do that, you and I both need to know where you are now and where it is that you want to go. Setting the expectations in this way opens that dialogue and sets the plan in motion. And every day/week/month, when we discuss performance, we will be able to look back at these very specific things and know if we are moving in the right direction or not.”
Rule #3: Go beyond the words of the document and into observed behaviours.
Job profiles list out a bunch of expectations.
- Collaborate well with others.
- Excellent communication skills.
- Proficiency using Microsoft office suite.
- Achieves project deliverables and deadlines.
- Develops detailed project plans to stakeholders and stays within scope of practice.
- Can work within established budgets.
- Establish and maintain relationships with stakeholders.
- Measures project performance by providing helpful feedback to project contributors, including stakeholders, marketing, communication, design, and development.
If you and I were to sit down and read through these expectations then sign on the dotted line, I guarantee that our breakdown of the observed behaviours for each of these would be different. This is the reason why you must go beyond the words and into observed behaviours.
What does “Achieves project deliverables and deadlines” look like in observed behaviours?
1. What would I see you doing that would tell me you’re achieving this expectation?
2. What would I see you not doing that would tell me you’re not achieving this expectation?
3. What would I see you doing that would tell me you’re not achieving this expectation?
The answers to these provide behaviours which can always be broken down into the emotional intelligence skills that supports their execution.
And if you are lacking in emotional intelligence then I know where to begin with your training and development! If what you need to execute an expectation, to have difficult conversations with stakeholders when behind on timelines, is the skill of assertiveness, then I would work with you on assertiveness.
Rule #4: Explain HOW you will hold your employee accountable.
People do NOT like to be surprised when it comes to their performance. Don’t sneak up on me and ‘attack me’. That’s the fear. An attack.
Ease their mind by explaining HOW you will hold them accountable. It’s about 2 steps and then it’s a dialogue.
The key to success in this area is being consistent in your HOW. Do not stray from your promise of HOW. The consistency of your character, in the high-risk moments, is what your people are watching you like a hawk on. Remember…when you become a manager, your employees are watching you just as much as you are watching them. Perhaps even more.
“Mitch, I want to take this time to explain how I will hold you accountable should I observe a violated expectation, broken promise, or bad behaviour. The first thing I will do is ask for your time – that may be immediately, in the moment of an observation, or in a set meeting time. I will always do this in private – never in public. I will explain to you the observed behaviours with as much specificity as I can and then I will ask you a question. The question will be intended for you to share your intention, emotions, and thoughts behind the behaviors I observed. From there we will work together toward the target outcome. As necessary, I will document all accountability discussions in your employee performance log. Just like I will document all of your successful accomplishments.”
The absolute BEST demonstration of accountability did not include my needing to do a thing. It was when my employee caught themselves in a violated expectation, came to me to disclose, offered their solutions and growth plan, explained my role in their achievement of said plan, and took action toward their success.
True accountability is, at its core, empowerment. As a manager, you have the opportunity to set the stage and provide every opportunity for your people to rise to this level of empowerment.
This level of empowerment has the potential to lead you to the utopian environment within which every individual holds every other individual accountable no matter their position. In which each person steps up to hold themselves accountable. And in which accountability is not feared, rather welcomed, as an opportunity to uphold oneself to the highest standards of behaviour.
Together we soar stronger than alone.