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Bruce Tulgan

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Tie real consequences to performance to create empowerment and accountability


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

First, accountability works only as a management tool if the employee knows in advance that she will have to answer for her actions.

IF you tell an employee that she is accountable for her actions after she has taken action, it won’t affect that person’s behavior. Likewise, if you punish a person for her poor performance – without having told her in advance that her actions would be attached to punishments and rewards – it’s too late to affect behavior in that instance.

Second, employees must trust and believe that there is a fair and accurate process for keeping track of their actions and typing their behavior to real consequences.

The first thing you would want to know from your boss if they came in tomorrow morning and said, ‘If you do a great job today, I am going to give you a $1,000 bonus,’ is, what exactly does a great job look like today?

After all, if you are going to be held accountable for your actions and there are going to be consequences for them, you would want to know exactly what is expected and required of you. You’d also want to know that someone is keeping a close eye on you all day so that they don’t miss it when you do a great job.

And, finally, you’d want to ensure that your performance will be measured based on those expectations and requirements that were spelled out up front – and nothing else.

You need a fair and accurate process for tying real consequences to each employee’s real concrete actions.

What does that process look like?

  • Spell out expectations in advance in vivid terms
  • Track employee performance every step of the way
  • Follow through with real consequences based on whether the employee’s actual performance meets those expectations or not

This process cannot be done once or twice a year, during formal performance evaluations. The process of creating real empowerment and accountability has to be done up close and often.

In the real world, however, you will encounter many complications that make it nearly impossible to maintain an airtight process linking individual actions to consequences.

Don’t let those complications become excuses for not practicing real accountability. You can hold people accountable, even in a complex world.

As you monitor and measure performance, stay focused on outcomes.

Look at the work product and keep asking questions: ‘Did you do what you said you were going to do? Why or why not? How did you do it? How long did each step take? Why?’ Press for details and ask for explanations. And don’t forget to ask around.

Ask customers, clients, vendors, coworkers, and other managers about an employee’s work and see if what they are telling you is accurate. Get those second and third opinions whenever you can.

Over time, of course, you will get to know the person’s work better and better. You will get to know the employee’s work habits and track record.

You will be better able to gauge the employee’s veracity, trustworthiness, and reliability. You will be able to read the conversations you are having by the way the person talks and the kinds of things he says. Certainly, you will learn enough to be a good boss.

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