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Accountability: The Nemesis of a New Leader

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Promotions are exciting. Especially that first promotion that takes you from the status of “employee” to “management.” And then reality sets in. You have to hold people accountable.

Whether someone is a newly crowned manager of people or projects, holding people accountable is often the least desired new responsibility – for many valid reasons:

“She used to be my peer”

“He’s worked here for ten years longer than me”

“They don’t report directly to me; I’m not really their boss.”

I recall a time when my long-time peer was promoted to manage the team. At our first meeting after her promotion, she looked across the table at me and stated simply, “well, this is weird.”

And while the reasons for your discomfort are valid; the importance of holding people accountable early and often in a person’s management career is indisputable. Without this, you’re putting your team at risk for missed deadlines, boredom, and poor business results.

So what is a new manager to do? These practical ideas can help:

Reframe the job: Many leaders consider accountability to be a negative interaction between them and their team members. Newer leaders can also feel deficient or unworthy of such a responsibility. It’s important to reframe this part of your job so that you see it for what it really is. First, you are helping someone by working to improve her performance. Second, you earned this promotion. You’ve been given the responsibility to deliver results because others believe you can do it. It’s important that you believe it too.

Dig to the root: There are a zillion reasons why people do or do not take personal responsibility to get their work done. And while it’s clear that some root causes for a person’s performance are outside the manager’s control, new managers should not fall into the trap of brushing off bad performance because that’s “just the way he is.” This belief excuses the manager from influencing another’s behavior. We use an accountability model that illustrates just the opposite:

What Influences Accountability

When asked which of these drivers they can influence, new leaders admit they have influence – even control – over many of these. Your best opportunity to exert that influence, however, is to understand them. Which of these are at play for each team member? How do these drivers shape the way they perform?

Clarity and Follow-Up: There are two popular reasons that accountability falls short: the person didn’t understand what they were expected to do, and no one followed up to check on their progress. It’s your job as the leader to communicate expectations and to confirm they are clear. Do the team members understand what those expectations mean for them individually? Do they know what success looks like? The best way to drive a sense of accountability in a culture is follow up. Follow up on questions, tasks, and next steps consistently as a new manager to shape your reputation as a leader.

Holding others accountable for their own performance and project results is not a slam dunk for any leader. As a new leader, you want the skills in your toolbox early on in your management career. Then you can feel a deserved sense of accomplishment as you watch the progression of your people and your projects.


Karen Maxwell Powell is an affiliate at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.