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Processes and rules do not hold people accountable; people do.

“How do I hold people accountable?”

—countless managers

Many managers, ironically, do not know how to hold people accountable and have never been trained in managing people. They either lack the proper structure to do so, or they lack the personal authority (Strategic Organizational Alignment, p. 75) to pull it off. When tasks are slipping, projects are running late, or decisions are not being made yet the employees and managers are just going about their business as if it is no big deal, then likely your work place needs a refresher on accountability.

Managers must be willing and able to confront employees who work outside their boundaries or repeatedly miss their deadlines. Supervisors and leaders either have legitimate authority (i.e., you do their performance review) or they must be backed up by those who do have legitimate authority most of the time. If you are in a team-lead or any coordinator-type role, you most likely do not hire or fire the employees you are trying to coordinate. Therefore, you do not have the legitimate formal authority that comes from being someone’s boss, yet you are expected to act [and hold them accountable]. This type of authority is called “role” authority.

In such roles while trying to hold an employee accountable (without having legitimate authority), if you often get vetoed, then the employees will know that they don’t really have to listen to you. Therefore, the system is out of alignment. Clarity of authority is the crucial. However, it is not the only ingredient to accountability. Many managers, with or without legitimate authority, have a hard time appropriately confronting employees in those moments where such action is vital to business success.

While there is no perfect way to ensure happy employees while holding them accountable, there are some basics of effective accountability that many organizations do not have in place. Those basics are:

  • clear expectations, which includes task-component clarity,
  • single point of accountability, and
  • what we call By-Whens. [or just erase this bulleted list and do a numbered list with the headings below]

Task Component Clarity/Clear Expectations

All tasks need to have maximum clarity so employees will know exactly what, how, and when they are to do it. This is easier if you are a cashier or putting in one bolt on a line, but many are in work environments where they are creating and doing lots of emerging work, so task component clarity can easily get muddled. If you do not work to get maximum clarity of task with your employees or from your boss, then holding your employee accountable is almost impossible.

Single Point of Accountability (SPA)

For each task, action item, or duty there must be one person accountable, a single point of accountability or SPA. Groups or work teams do not do things, people do, and if you have nobody accountable, then good luck knowing whom to hold accountable when things do not get done.


A By-When is a completion date with an added component. By-When ensures communication if dates start to slip. It is more than a commitment date, because dates can come and go. It is a commitment to communicate the status of the task if it starts to slip prior to the completion date. It accomplishes many things. By-Whens are a key component to helping any organization execute tasks in an ever shifting world. When you can make and follow through with internal By-Whens, you will then provide the same to your external customers as well.

Consequence Management

Finally, consequence management can only be effectively done if you have first done work on role (or task) clarity, expectations, SPAs, and By-Whens.

Manager: “I told them that this is the last time I will let them get away with that!”

Consultant: “How many times have you told them that?”

Manager: “Oh, about seven!”

Consultant: “Hmmm. Well, I hope you don’t tell them eight times! Instead, I want you to learn to apply the consequences.”

Consequence management is an important component of accountability. All workplaces have rules and guidelines which dictate how to legitimately hold employees accountable when they do not meet expectations. Rules are not enough; many managers, if not most, have a very difficult time actually exercising their authority. If you rarely, if ever, apply consequence management, then your employees will know that they do not really have to listen to you around rules and expectations. The key to holding people accountable is to have clear expectations, SPAs, and By-Whens, then to use your authority appropriately to hold your people accountable by using consequence management when needed.

Processes and rules do not hold people accountable; people do.