A manager of an independent natural food store, when her store was smaller, met individually with her department managers every week to talk about how things were going in the department. If this GM noted any performance issues in the department, she would bring them up in this meeting. She would ask if the manager wanted any help in strategizing how to address the issues. Sometimes they would go over “talking points” for the manager to use in a conversation with an employee.

Then the next week, the GM would ask the department manager, “Did you talk to him?  How did it go?” Quite often the manager would have an excuse for why he or she hadn’t talked to the employee. But a week later the GM would ask, “Did you talk to him? How did it go?”

Eventually all the managers came to understand that the GM would never let them off the hook. They got tired of making excuses and began to follow up. The ones who didn’t want to, chose to leave, while the ones who stayed, got good at following up on performance issues and passed on that expectation to their direct reports.  Today, that highly successful store is a shining example of accountability down through all the layers of management – not to mention excellent customer service and the ability to withstand its competition without losing sales.

This is a good example of accountability in action. The department managers had to account for their action or inaction. There was no punishment for non-compliance, just a steady refusal to sweep it under the rug.


Accountablity loop

I see accountability as a process, actually a loop. First, the supervisor has to make sure the employee understands and agrees with expectations. Then the supervisor must provide training and resources for the employee to do the job. After that, comes a follow-up with the employee to assess performance. Finally, the supervisor must give feedback and ensure that the employee receives meaningful consequences—positive or negative—for performance. At this point, the supervisor needs to remind the employee about and clarify the expectations for the future.

I like to show this process as a diagram (see above).  It’s called The Accountability Loop.  If a manager appears to be struggling with holding their people accountable, it’s helpful to use this diagram as a way for them and their manager to diagnose the problem.

Stage I: Is it that the expectations aren’t made clear? Or does the employee disagree with them and resist them?

Stage II: Has training been adequate or was the employee thrown into the department to sink or swim during a hectic time? Has there ever been a designated trainer for that employee?

Stage III: Have the employee’s evaluations been on time? Have they been honest? Has the manager been too busy to notice how the employee is performing?

Stage IV: Has the manager avoided giving feedback because s/he’s afraid of conflict? Have the only consequences been negative and never positive?

These questions are examples of how you can use the “Accountability Loop” to pinpoint the source of the problem and strategize what to do next.

Sometimes, the prospect of being held accountable makes people feel fearful that they will be judged, found wanting and punished. In reality, when leaders ensure accountability at every level of an organization, including themselves, workplace morale improves. It is reassuring to operate in an environment where someone is paying attention, where poor performance is not tolerated and good performance is recognized. People can take pride in their work.  Rather than fearing accountability, we should embrace it.