How to Create Accountability on Your Team

A reader asks:

“I often feel like there’s not a strong enough sense of accountability on my team. People commit to projects that then don’t move forward, deadlines get missed, and smaller items fall through the cracks. What kind of sanctions can I use in this context? I’m frustrated enough to start docking people’s pay!”


Don’t start docking pay.

This is one of those big problems that has a small solution. In our experience, the majority of the time when a team is experiencing these sorts of problems, it’s because the manager hasn’t done enough to close the loop with people when commitments aren’t met. Becoming vigilant about doing that will radically change your team’s culture and improve accountability.

“Closing the loop” simply means that when you and a staff member agree that she will do X, and then X doesn’t happen (or happens significantly differently than what you had agreed to), the next step is to circle back and find out what happened. This doesn’t need to be a Big Formal Conversation; it can be as simple as, “We agreed on X; you did Y; what happened there?”

For instance, if your fundraising director doesn’t get you a draft grant proposal by the deadline you set, you might say, “We agreed I’d be able to look at the proposal three days before it was due to the funder, but I received it too close to the deadline to be able to give meaningful feedback. What happened there?” Or, if you’ve noticed that your assistant has been slow to respond to others on your staff but provides quick replies when you get looped in, you might say: “Thanks for getting back to Mara on X. Was there a reason you responded when I got involved and not before?”

By signaling, “I pay attention to your work, I notice when things don’t seem right, and we’ll address it when that happens,” you’re creating accountability and reinforcing how you want people to operate. And you can send the same signal by noticing and commenting when things go right, too! In fact, this kind of accountability is the final stage in the cycle of delegating work (see graphic below), and the first step in setting expectations for the next iteration of that cycle.

Of course, if you do this but the problem continues to happen, at that point you’d want to address it as a serious performance issue. But start with this approach and see what happens.

Delegation Cycle