When we train managers, one of the most difficult concepts for managers is accountability.  Management means having authority over someone, but managers quickly realize that having authority doesn’t make employees do what you expected.  How does a manager achieve accountability on their team?

First of all, managers should look at their employees as individuals versus a group.  Treating everyone the exact same and as a group creates disengagement and spreads toxicity within the team.  Managers need to have regular conversations with individuals on their team to get to know them and understand their strengths.   

As managers talk to their employees, we suggest that they look for one thing: ownership.  Is the employee taking ownership in their work?  When they make a mistake, do they own it or blame others?  Do they seem to care about the outcome?   Whether or not the employee takes ownership in their work introduces two very different pathways and sets of tools for managing the employee.

If the employee does take ownership in the work, then the manager should coach and support the employee.  If the employee makes a mistake, the manager should work with the employee to correct the mistake.  If mistakes continue to happen, but the employee still owns it, then the manager should invest time with the employee to offer additional training, support, and encouragement.  In most cases, the employee will improve because they want to improve. 

If the employee does not take ownership in the work, then the manager needs to lean on “radical clarity”.  Creating radical clarity means hyper focusing on key performance metrics or behaviors.  Radical clarity is more than just clarity which requires more than one conversation.   It requires repeated and ongoing focus on desired metrics and behaviors.  This lets the employee know that you are not going to let this slide and create accountability.

A few years ago, I worked with a small production company that was behind on production.  They had 4 identical machines that produced their product all located next to each other on the production floor.  The production manager at the time was not taking ownership over the production shortfalls instead blaming everything outside of his control and even blaming his employees.  The owner of the company was exasperated with how to hold his production manager accountable who, in turn, would then need to hold the employees accountable.  I was onsite for three days, and offered to help show the owner how radical clarity could work.

I walked with the owner onto the production floor and stood in a spot where I had good visibility of all 4 machines.  Looking at the machines, I noticed that only one machine was running and nobody was working on the other three machines.  I called the production manager over and asked him if he had enough people to run the other machines.  He said that he did have enough people, but they were all busy.  I pointed out to him that regardless of how hard people worked, when those machines were down, they were losing production.  I suggested to him that when he walked onto the production floor, he should look to see how many machines were running to gauge whether they were going to meet their production goals.

The production manager was not taking ownership.  He told me that his people worked very hard.  I pushed back with my perspective.  I told him that I knew that they worked hard.  I pointed to a group of people who were preparing more raw material for a machine that wasn’t running even though the machine had enough raw material to run for several days.  I told him they were working hard and not being productive unless the machines were running.  The production manager rolled his eyes at me and walked away.

An hour later, I walked back to the production floor and looked at the machines.  There was still only one machine running.  I grabbed the owner, and we asked the production manager how many machines were running.  He had to look.  He started to tell me all the things other workers were doing.  I reminded him that I wasn’t questioning him on whether his employees were working hard or even that he wasn’t working hard.  I again pointed out that the machines were the bottleneck to the entire process and if they weren’t running, they were losing production.  I suggested that he work on getting the other machines running.  

An hour after that, I walked back again.  There was still only one machine running, but operators were setting up a 2nd machine to run.  I called the production manager over and asked him how many machines were running.  This time he knew the answer.  He told me that they were about to have two machines running.  I asked about the other two machines.  He stormed off angry. 

During the course of the next couple of days, I returned to that production floor over and over again.  The employees were starting to understand what we were looking at even when the production manager resisted it.  I must’ve asked “how many machines are running?” a dozen times a day.  By the time we left, they were running three or four machines pretty regularly.   At the end of each day, we would meet with the production manager and the employees and show them their production numbers (something they hadn’t been doing before).  We showed them how production increased significantly during those three days.  

In corresponding weeks, the owner took on the charge and started asking “how many machines are running?”.  When I called into a meeting from onsite, I would always open with the same question.  The owner said that employees were starting to ask the question and when they saw a machine down, they would quickly work to get it back up and running.  Production improved.  The production managers started buying in to the concept of running the machines.  

This example highlights the fact that accountability does not come from one conversation.  It comes from multiple conversations all focusing on key outcomes and behaviors.  I didn’t care as much that the production manager didn’t agree to run more machines – we needed him to run more machines. 

What if he hadn’t run the more machines? 

Then the solution is obvious.  It’s time to fire the production manager.  I’ll note that before I would take that step, I would make sure that there is no real reason why the production manager can’t comply.  Remember, he had the people and the resources to run the machines.  He just wouldn’t do it. 

Most of the time, employees will come around if you keep focusing on key behaviors and metrics and you won’t have to fire anyone.  The truth is that most employees are smart and capable and want to do a good job.  A good manager just shares what “a good job” means and then helps the employees get the resources they need to succeed.   If one or more employees do push back, the manager makes it radically clear what is expected.  


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