Five C’s of Accountability

October 27, 2013

Letter "C" - See all letters in my PortfolioAccountability is a very popular word these days. In my consulting practice, the word comes up on a daily basis. I have written articles on various aspects of accountability, from the attitudes that make it more constructive (not always negative) to how leaders should feel more accountable for their own actions before blaming others.

This article outlines five principles of accountability that can help any leader do a better job in this critical area of performance management.

The five principles are 1) Clarify Expectations, 2) My Contribution, 3) Care, 4) Comprehensive and Balanced, and 5) Collective Responsibility. Putting these five practices in play on a daily basis will improve the performance of any organization. Let’s see why that is:

Clarify Expectations

People must understand expectations to have any shot at meeting them. In some complex situations, a written document is required, but most of the time it is a matter of spelling out what the requirements are and gaining a verification that the employee has truly internalized them.

Often a failure to perform at the prescribed level can be traced to a misunderstanding between the supervisor and employee.

Supervisors sometimes make the mistake of assuming the employee understands what is required because he or she has heard the instructions. To verify understanding it is critical to have the employee state in his or her own words the specific requirement.

It needs to be framed up in terms of the specific action to be done by a specific time and with certain level of quality level. The employee can decide how to accomplish the task, but the deliverable must be crystal clear to avoid ambiguity.

Having the employee parrot back the expectation has the additional benefit in the event the deliverable is fuzzy. The supervisor can take the time to reiterate the specific deliverable before the employee attempts to do it. This saves time, money and reduces frustration.

My Contribution

Often the supervisor will attempt to hold an employee or group accountable when the reason for the shortfall was a blockage caused by the supervisor rather than the workers. Most people will do a good job if the culture and environment set up by management are conducive to working well.

When supervisors micromanage or otherwise destroy positive attitudes of the workers, they are contributing substantially to the shortfall they see within the workforce. They are quite often the root cause of the problem, yet they find it convenient to blame the workers for not toeing the line.

I recall one VP who lamented that “all my people are lazy.” As I dug into the situation, it was evident that the bully attitudes of the VP had caused people to become apathetic and perform only when beaten.

The VP blamed the workers, but he was clearly the source of the problem. He could not understand this connection of cause and effect. If this VP was replaced by an empowering leader, those “lazy” workers would quickly become productive and show high initiative.


When giving feedback on performance, especially if performance is not at the level expected, be sure to treat the employee the way you would want to be treated if the situation was reversed.

The Golden Rule provides excellent guidance in most cases.

There are some exceptions where the Golden Rule breaks down (suppose I enjoy being yelled at and confronted), but they are rare. If the manager demonstrates real care for the individual, even when the feedback is not positive, the employee will usually respond well to the input.

Comprehensive and Balanced

This principle means that the leader must take the big picture of what is going on into account when deciding if an individual is meeting what is expected. There may be a specific reason for not living up to the agreed performance that is totally out of the control of the employee.

If a dog is left locked up in the house all day, it is entirely possible you will find a mess on the floor, even if the dog would have loved to have been let out.

Make sure that the feedback is balanced such that you account for the good things they do as well as for times they fall short. Since most people do things right far more than they fail, your holding people accountable should normally be a positive discussion.

Rapport and trust are destroyed when employees only hear from management when they are having problems.

Collective Responsibility

If the accountability discussion has the flavor of everyone, including the manager, being responsible, then that feeling of a family working together will permeate the discussions, and they will be more fruitful.

When the manager points the finger at a specific worker and fails to involve the other people who also make up the system, the employee feels picked on. This results in hard feelings and creates more problems than it solves.

These five C’s will help you create an environment where holding people accountable is more productive and effective. Try to remember these principles when you are dealing with the people in your life.

The 360 Degree Trap

December 11, 2011

I am a big believer in 360 Degree assessments for leaders. Reason: the tool is one of the best ways to reveal to a leader what other people think of him or her. If administered correctly, the evaluation can be insightful and form the basis of a well-focused development plan.

Unfortunately, there are some traps that can cause the 360 Degree Assessment to be harmful rather than helpful. In this article, I focus on one major flaw with 360 Degree Assessments and offer some antidotes to this problem.

Most organizations use 360 as a measure of the effectiveness of leaders, and that information is directly related to compensation and advancement. This is logical because a 360 Degree Assessment represents how skilled the leader is at working with people at all levels. Isn’t that what a performance measurement system is supposed to do? Actually, no. Performance measurement should focus on results and behaviors to get the results, not on how well liked a leader is with people at all levels.

The 360 Degree Assessment can result in leadership mediocrity. Once managers realize their performance will be measured with a 360 process, they quickly learn it is vital to have all subordinates like them. That means leaders will focus on being popular with the troops, which is not always the best strategy for excellent leadership.

For example, I witnessed a Business Unit Manager who took his entire team off site for a day-long celebration of their progress. A lot of money was spent, and a good time was had by all, complete with a “hand jive” group dance that pumped a lot of energy. Six months later the entire team was unemployed, including the manager. He ignored the business realities and focused on keeping employees happy until there was no business left.

Great leaders recognize that sometimes they are not going to be well liked. They always seek to be respected, but that means sometimes enduring a period where they are unpopular. As Colin Powell once said, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” If the 360 Degree Assessment is directly linked to compensation and advancement, the exercise encourages leaders to make popular decisions over doing the right thing.

I recall one instance where I was combining several manufacturing departments into a divisional structure. Most of the departments had a mandatory safety shoe rule because the employees were moving heavy materials. One department decided they would not require safety shoes because most of their operation was “light” manufacturing. I was troubled by the inconsistent policy and was trying to drive a safety shoe mandate for all departments. I met with considerable resistance from this one department.

One day an operator in that department had an incident with a cart that ran over his foot. The injury was not serious, but it could have easily been a broken foot. I called a meeting and said it was now a requirement to wear safety shoes in the department. For months after that, I was a very unpopular leader with that population. The decision was respected, and it was clearly followed, but these people were extremely unhappy. My 360 rating coming from that area was impacted that year, and it had a negative influence on my overall performance appraisal.

The remedy is to make the leadership evaluation be a holistic process that takes into account many things, one of which is a 360 Degree Assessment. There needs to be an understanding that a temporarily low score from subordinates is not necessarily a black mark. The interpretation of data needs to take into account conditions on the ground that are causing the low marks. You might think that if employees had true respect for their leader, they would rate her highly even if they were unhappy with her at the moment. If you believe that, you and I disagree on human nature.

If handled well, the 360 Degree process works extremely well. Unfortunately, many organizations do not apply the necessary caveats because they don’t take the time and energy to understand the situations driving the data. Measuring human performance of managers is a very complex process, if your objectives are to encourage the right behaviors in the future and grow leadership capabilities. Do not mechanically couple the results of 360 Degree Assessments to compensation and advancement programs. It can lead to mediocre leaders.