November 29 2018

When you notice a lack of accountability on your team, it’s easy to slip into micromanaging in order to make sure everyone stays on top of what they are supposed to be doing. But micromanaging is draining for a manager, and stifling for a team. Worse yet, over time it leads to poorer performance, higher turnover, and frustration all around.

In these situations, it can feel like you can’t trust people on your team to stay on top of their work. You know that leaving them to their own devices will result in unacceptable performance and reflect poorly on you — their manager. So how do you turn things around without falling into the micromanaging trap?

Here are five steps you can use to hold people accountable and turn things around in a matter of just a few months:

1. Detach from the Outcome
This might seem counterintuitive, but usually an emotional attachment to the performance of your team is what leads down the micromanager path. You may notice a thought process in your head that sounds something like this: “The buck stops here – with me,”…or “I’m going to look really bad if they don’t do this right,”…or “If this doesn’t get done, it’s on me.” So you spend extra time correcting their work, often completely redoing it, and sometimes throwing your hands up and just doing it yourself.

Yes, you are the manager and their performance is a reflection on your leadership, but leadership isn’t about turning people into your clone, or having them do things just like you would do them. In order to empower them to accomplish what they are responsible for in their own way — and to learn from their mistakes, you need to detach from their approach to the work. You can still protect yourself from critical mistakes by building a safety net into your management system.

Know in advance what could and probably will go wrong from time to time as people make mistakes and learn. Decide how you will handle the results of their mistakes, and make peace with that dip in quality output by re-framing it as experiential training. Identify in advance the few things that cannot be slipped up on, at all costs, even in the name of training. For those critical tasks, you’ll need a system in place to check their work before it can cause damage. That said, you should still make them responsible for correcting their errors, regardless of how many times it requires them to redo their work.

The best way to do this is to create a system that allows you to monitor what they do, but hold them responsible for staying on top of the monitoring system. (More on this in item 3 below.)

2. Identify and Set Clear Expectations around a few Key Behaviors
In most jobs there are just a few critical behaviors that high performance depends on. In sales it is usually the volume of outreach and the main points of communication with prospects. In medicine it could be diagnosis, bedside manner, and compliance with treatment plans. In manufacturing it might be process consistency, safety, and QA. Regardless of the job, if you can identify a short list of behaviors that are most critical to getting the results you want, then you can hone in on these behaviors as a priority for training.

The reason we focus on just a few behaviors is because people are more easily able to stay accountable to very clear and specific expectations than to a laundry list of expectations. I work with many managers who have a big concern that their team members are not prioritizing well. Perhaps they get lost in less important details; take on minor assignments that are interesting or have been requested by a big boss; or let these tasks distract them from the most important (and possibly boring) tasks that will yield the highest results.

Here’s an exercise to help you get clear on what is most important for your team.

  • Write down the names of each member of your team.
  • For each person write down all the things they should be doing with their time.
  • Assign each item a number from 1-10, based on how important it is to achieving the results they’re responsible for. Typically you will notice that 20% of what any person does is responsible for about 80% of their results.
  • Your job is to identify that 20% and boil it down to a few very specific behaviors.

When you’re finished and have identified the top few key actions or behaviors that result in success, you’ll want to make sure each team member knows that these behaviors are their highest priorities. They should know exactly what the benchmark or metric is for each behavior, and they should expect to have these behaviors monitored.

3. Create Transparent Systems that Monitor all Critical Behaviors
Accountability happens naturally with the awareness that comes from keeping track, and it’s even MORE natural when not only you, but everyone else knows exactly how you are progressing. For this reason, most sales and athletic teams have very public posts of everyone’s performance metrics. In some cases, results are posted on a large board on the wall with multiple colors, so it is obvious to everyone how individual members of the team are doing, as well as how the team is doing as a group.

Once you have identified just a few key behaviors, you can create a very public and positive visual representation of progress or consistency related to these behaviors and the resulting “wins” in performance. You can also do this with a weekly scorecard that is reviewed in staff meetings.

Here’s what’s great about having an open discussion with your team that speaks to key behaviors and performance. When you celebrate successes, and discuss what is needed to level up with the team, team members begin to take ownership of the process and for their results. Ask them what they’re noticing when they’re doing well, where they seem to be struggling, and what ideas they have to help everyone level up. If you’re asking questions and not telling them what to do, they become part of the process.

By handling your expectations this way, you serve as the leader who sets expectations, while making it very clear what behaviors are the priorities. It is also clear that these actions will lead to the desired results! This method is especially helpful when the system has everyone monitoring these behaviors together.

Meanwhile the team is responsible for engaging in the behaviors, discussing what is going well – and what the challenges are, and brainstorming on how to better meet the expectations and the results.

4. Give Frequent Feedback with Neutral Energy
If you’re feeling impatient and frustrated while giving feedback, you’ll hear defensiveness and resentment in response to your intense energy. Team members will shut down, and your message won’t sink in. But if you have neutral energy, which comes from not being attached to the outcome, you will be heard.

Everyone on your team needs feedback, and they need it on a daily basis, especially when it comes to what they’re doing right, and what you are noticing about them that makes you believe they can succeed.

Instead of saying “great job,” or “I love your positive attitude,” it’s more effective to get specific, pointing out behaviors and their positive impact: “I notice how organized your desk is, and that gives an impression to every customer who walks by that we are on top of things — which means we will take good care of them,” or “Your positivity is contagious and it makes work easier for the entire team.”

If you give enough specific positive feedback, then when it comes time to give negative feedback, it will seem more natural and less personal. It will also be less difficult for you, and you’ll be more likely to do it in the moment – when it is most needed. For instance, if you say, “When you have papers all over your desk and a customer spends 3 minutes watching you look for the form they need, it casts doubt into their mind. They begin to question whether we will lose something important related to them”. Or, “When you’re stressed, your energy affects everyone else on the team – and the anxiety level around the office increases. It’s important for you to take a break and do what you need to calm down. And you’re welcome to come talk with me if you need help.”

By consistently using the formula for feedback that describes a specific behavior and the impact of that behavior, you keep the feedback useful and impersonal, while also raising awareness of every team member about the impact of their behaviors. By simply raising that awareness, you naturally increase ownership and accountability.

5. Have Clear Consequences that you Can and Will Execute
It doesn’t make sense to set a consequence that you won’t easily be able to execute, and so it’s worth taking some time to decide in advance how you will handle situations where people don’t meet expectations. There are a lot of natural consequences built into accountability systems. The first consequence is that by creating a public and transparent tracking system and a weekly review of it, each individual member has the immediate and public consequence of the rest of the team seeing their action or lack of action.

Keep in mind that the consequences we’re talking about here are for either doing and not doing the actions that have been clearly identified – such as correct documentation, sales outreach, or other proactive behaviors that are completely under the person’s control. We are not talking about results such as actual sales achieved. Results are not under the person’s control – they can only influence the results with their behavior.

What we want to encourage (and recognize) is the behavior – what they can actually control, rather than outcomes that are often outside their control. (this doesn’t mean that you aren’t measuring results – just that you aren’t putting people on the spot publicly for something they can’t control)

When you have complete control over what you are committing to, it can be a deeply uncomfortable consequence to have to report that you did not do it in a weekly meeting. You can try the excuse of not having time, but when there are only a few behaviors that have been identified as top priorities, that excuse can only justify an occasional slip – not consistently missing the mark.

So, your first consequence, both positive and negative, is the rest of the team seeing how you keep to your commitments. When someone does not do the behaviors several weeks in a row, the next level consequence is an open and direct discussion about what is getting in the way. It may be impossible to do the actions – and if so, that should be discussed. Or if someone is missing a skill or has another issue getting in the way, this is the time to re-adjust expectations or responsibilities.

In situations like this, it may be inappropriate to have the discussion as a team but it’s critical to have the discussion with your employee. If an employee goes 3-6 weeks not doing the required behaviors and not being called on it, the message being sent is that the behaviors aren’t actually critical after all.

This circles us back to the importance of identifying only a handful of critical behaviors. Neither you nor your employee will have the energy to monitor or stay focused on more than 3-5 key weekly required behaviors. Once these are consistent, then you can expand and address other issues.

Getting Started
These concepts are simple to think through, but not as easy to implement when you get caught up in the reality of the busy work day. It’s easy to confuse what is most important with the urgent issues that have to be addressed, which take your time every day. As a manager, you have your own failings, and sometimes it’s difficult to hold others to standards you don’t feel you are living up to. All of these issues can complicate things, increase your anxiety and frustration, and have you falling back into a pattern of micromanaging, just because things need to get done.

Our Aspire business support groups help YOU stay accountable to implementing your own accountability system as the leader. It’s the place where you identify what systems you want to put into place, discuss your challenges with other leaders and build awareness over what pulls you away from what is most important to you.

One of the business books I love that makes great use of accountability systems is Traction, by Gino Wickman. We’re currently using this book in our Business Owners Group, and recently reviewed the systems in one of our Aspire Leadership Forums.

If you would like my notes on this book or a link to the video of the webinar we did on these systems, please feel free to reach out, by sending me an email. I’d be happy to provide tools for you, or talk with you in more detail about your own situation, and whether our groups could be a great accountability system for you.


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