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Free Article

How to Make Your People Accountable

(Originally published in Computerworld USA and IT World Canada)

"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:

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:

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:

But none of these emotions engenders genuine accountability, and few of them would qualify as productive.

Employees must choose accountability. You can offer it, but they must decide whether to accept it. And you can't force them to do so. The best you can do is to try to create an environment that encourages them to make that choice. Here's how:

But again, you can only encourage them to choose accountability; you can't mandate that choice.

Even now, I can hear your protest: "I can discipline people if they screw up." True, but even if done well, discipline is only one means of engendering accountability. It's not the whole enchilada. More important, an employee who really feels accountable punishes herself for a failure more than you can punish her. Trying to make geeks feel things tends to be counterproductive. We don't like to be manipulated.

So give up on that dream of making people accountable, and start thinking about how you can make accountability a compelling offer. An invitation is the best you're going to be able to muster. Make it enticing.


 Copyright 2010 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.