“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises” – Mae West

Holding People Accountable for their actions involves measuring performance against a standard, then acknowledging successful outcomes and confronting shortfalls.

What does ‘good’ look like…

Holding People Accountable starts by making sure that people know what they are supposed to be responsible for. It is self evident that without clear, documented standards that set out what is expected of people, “holding them to account” is very difficult, because we have no benchmark to hold them accountable against.

Having standards at the company level involves implementing procedures that describe what people should do and how they should behave. This will include written Job Descriptions; an Employee Handbook; Standard Operating Procedures; plus a Performance Management System for goal setting and regular reviews. Also useful is an Organisational Chart that shows the chain-of-command to clarify where in the organisation each person ‘sits’ and to whom they are responsible.

And does it actually matter what ‘good’ looks like…

The correct policy documents (e.g. Job Descriptions) are necessary for holding people to account but not sufficient. The missing component is Culture. In many organisations it is seen as just too much trouble to make people accountable when managers are rushed off their feet. Also some HR departments make the process of ‘holding to account’ so time consuming and arduous that the ‘default’ for managers is to just pay off the poorly performing person with a compromise agreement. For example, if very poor performers are subject to months of on-going ‘review meetings’ and repeated but fruitless ‘coaching sessions’ without ever being dismissed, the clear message is that performance management is something that managers best not waste their time on.

Stand up and be counted…

Silvermann, Pogson & Cober (2005) identified three key actions that individual managers need to take to drive accountability within an organisation (these actions are especially important where there are employees who wish to avoid keeping their promises to complete tasks on time and to the correct standard.)

  1. Modelling personal accountability (leading by example)
  2. Securing clear agreements about what people should be doing (setting good quality goals)
  3. Conducting effective on-going performance conversations that are focused on learning and improvement (give people regular feedback on how they are doing and, when necessary, provide additional support.)

No management without measurement…

On the individual level each manager needs to agree with each member of their team ‘what specifically’ they should deliver as part of their role. Ideally each employee will accept the goals they are set and be committed and motivated to achieving them. Some of these goals will be formally recorded as part of the Appraisal or Performance Management process, but others will occur as part of the normal work routine e.g. actions that result from a meeting.

Usually staff members accept personal responsibility for delivering on their goals, so gaining ‘buy in’ to an objective, together with a shared understanding of what good results look like, is relatively straight forward. Of course there are also employees who resist being set targets and who reject or discourage feedback, in which case the manager will need to take decisive action to get them to meet their obligations to the company and work colleagues.

Setting high quality goals…

Dr Edwin Locke’s pioneering research on goal setting in the late 1960’s clearly established a link with employee motivation and clear, challenging goals that are accompanied by effective feedback. Tasks or requests that are too vague demotivate employees e.g. saying, “work to hit an 80% accuracy level” is more effective than saying, “do your best”. The feedback component is also significant as people respond to being told how they are doing (in a constructive way.)

One of the most important characteristics of goals, Locke found, is the level of difficulty they contain. Many employees are motivated by achievement, and so judge the value of achieving the goal based on its difficulty. Of course there is a balance to be struck in that unrealistic or unachievable targets simply demotivate people.

Keeping it real…

One problem with goal setting is that the world moves so fast that the objectives can become outdated very quickly. You agree, say six objectives in January with a member of staff and find that by May, two have been done, two have proved to be unachievable, and two are no longer the priorities they were. Instead lots of new priorities have appeared or are appearing. So to keep goals relevant it is necessary to regularly update progress against ‘live’ goals, ‘close off’ obsolete goals and develop new objectives to replace the obsolete ones.

So how am I doing…

Accountability involves telling people how well they are doing in the role. An extensive Corporate Leadership Council research project (2000) involving 19,000 employees was able to statistically validate seven keys that correlated to improved employee performance. Of these, two factors: (i) Informal Feedback and (ii) Formal Review (e.g. appraisal meetings) related directly to giving feedback.

The study showed that employees are particularly motivated by the quick, informal discussions that occurred as they were working on the task (i.e. ‘informal feedback’.) It also showed that being given specific suggestions for how to change or improve things i.e. where there is a ‘coaching element’ to the conversation, energises people. The study also revealed that if feedback is only about possible improvements people start to feel demotivated so ‘positive feedback’ i.e. praise and other more tangible rewards such as pay rises (where merited) are an important part of effective feedback.

Be aware of potential barriers to doing good work…

In his 1999 book Why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do and what to do about it author Ferdinand Fournies identified sixteen common reasons why employees don’t focus on their goals, and these reasons often surface during informal feedback conversations. They range from, “thinking that something else is more important” and “Personal Problems” through to the more challenging, “they are punished for doing what they are supposed to do.” This last case might arise, for example, if an employee makes suggestions and is automatically the one lumbered with the extra work of implementing the idea. It is useful to be aware of and (of course) prevent these problems arising.

Consequences are king…

All actions, in any walk of life, have consequences. If you overeat you put on weight. If you exercise you get fitter. Sometimes those consequences are minor and sometimes they are major; sometimes they are immediate and sometimes they are delayed; sometimes they are pleasant and sometimes unpleasant. The key when holding people to account is that consequences are immediate (and proportionate.)

  • So great performance means that people get pay rises and promoted.
  • Good performance means that people get praise, recognition and exciting projects to work on.
  • Average performance means that people are supported and given appropriate rewards (most people are, after all, by definition, average)
  • Poor performance means that people are managed out of the organisation using a correctly applied disciplinary process.

Where managers have difficulty with holding people accountable then:

  • Objectives are not achieved
  • Good employees are effectively ‘punished’ (because they have to cover the work of the poor performers)
  • Poor performers are encouraged (because there are no negative consequences and other people pick up their slack)

Therefore, the ability to give praise, have difficult conversations, plus the willingness to explain and, if necessary, apply negative consequences to individuals who are not pulling their weight is a key component of being a competent manager.

So what’s next???

Reflect on how much praise or ‘positive feedback’ you give staff and, if low, make a point of developing the habit of acknowledging good work.

Review your team’s goals and ensure that they are relevant to their role, specific and challenging. If not, sit down with them and agree a shared view of what their priorities are and what a successful outcome would look like.

Consider scheduling, and holding, a monthly ‘one to one’ meeting with each team member (for about 30 minutes per person) specifically for feedback, coaching and to uncover what support they want from you.


Try reading: Lila Booth, 2001, Consequences: The Secret to Holding People Accountable. Harvard Business Publishing Newsletters


If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our in-house three-day, Managing the Individual Employee workshop


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Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work
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And to end with a quote from the well known management author Michael Armstrong…

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”