How to make your people accountable

You can't make your people accountable. Get over it. It's that simple.

"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 are 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.

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