How to Create Real Accountability Despite these 7 Common Complications

Employees must know in advance they will have to answer for their actions. And they must trust and believe there is a fair and accurate process for keeping track of their actions and tying that behavior to real consequences.

In order to make accountability work, it’s not enough to chant the slogan around the office and hope people get it.

First, accountability works only as a management tool if employees know in advance they will have to answer for their actions. If you tell employees they’re accountable after the fact, it won’t affect their behavior.

Second, employees must trust and believe there is a fair and accurate process for keeping track of their actions and tying that behavior to real consequences. What does that process look like?

  • Spell out expectations in advance in vivid terms
  • Track employee performance every step of the way
  • Follow through with real consequences based on whether the employee’s performance meets those expectations or not

This process cannot be done once or twice a year, during formal evaluations. The process of creating real accountability has to be done up close and often. In the real world, however, there are many complications that make it difficult to maintain an airtight process of accountability. Don’t let those complications become excuses! It is possible to hold people accountable, even in a complex world.

Consider the seven most common complications that interfere with accountability.

1. “I’m waiting for so-and-so or such-and-such.”

In today’s complex world, employees usually have to work closely with other employees and whole other departments, not to mention outsiders such as customers and vendors. How can you possibly hold employees accountable if they are legitimately held up by someone else?

First, focus on the tasks employees can accomplish on their own, without depending on anyone else. Second, consider how your employees are handling the people they depend upon to accomplish tasks. It may be that you can coach them on how to interact more effectively and get more of what is needed, faster. Finally, if your employees’ work is being held up by a coworker or an outsider, spell out exactly what you expect them to do during the waiting period. Help them make a plan to reduce downtime, maintain productivity, and continue moving the project along as much as possible.

2. “Some other work complications got in the way.”

In many organizations, managers often have to manage employees who have more than one boss, and thus have to compete for employees’ time and energy. Here are some of the best practices I’ve learned to deal with this situation:

  • Be the boss who is most engaged, and you will be the boss to whom your employees are most responsive. If they know you will follow up and insist on accountability, they will almost always put assignments for you first.
  • Be the boss who sets up employees for success and rewards them accordingly.
  • Be the boss who understands what other projects your employees are juggling for other managers. Ask lots of questions about their tasks and deadlines. Talk about how your assignment might interfere with other work. Make a plan for how they will respond if any other responsibility interferes with meeting your deadlines or requirements.
  • Be the boss who sets higher expectations and standards. Make it a point of pride. Let the people on your team appreciate being a part of high-quality work, and make that a part of the esprit de corps you all share.

3. “I’ve been accepting mediocrity for a long time.”

In this situation, it’s not unreasonable to expect some amount of pushback from the team. Why are you enforcing these standards now? They never seemed to be matter before! Making it work requires honesty.

Don’t be afraid to own the change. Tell your team, “Yes, it’s true, I’ve been accepting subpar performance until now. That’s my fault.” Let them know these changes are in everyone’s best interest—helping people improve and earn more.

4. “I’m a brand new manager…or brand new to the team.”

As tempting as it might be to remain one of the team, you are in a different role now. That doesn’t mean you have license to act like a jerk. But you do have to take charge. Do not make the mistake of justifying why you got the promotion over someone else; do not explain why you should be the boss.

Simply explain how you are going to behave as the boss. Explains what your expectations are and hold your employees accountable for meeting those expectations.

5. “Some of the people I’m supposed to be managing are my friends.”

Often, people become friends in the course of working together. Sometimes the friendship predates the working relationship. Either way, it can be hard to separate your role as boss from your role as friend. But you have to do it anyway.

First, decide which is more important to you. If the friendship is more important, maybe you shouldn’t be the boss. Second, protect the friendship by establishing ground rules that keep the roles separate. Third, protect the friendship by being a good boss!

6. “I don’t have direct authority over certain people, but I still have to manage them.”

If you are deputized as a short-term project leader, for the duration of that project, you simply must take charge. Ask your boss to sit down with the whole team and explain exactly what role each person is expected to play. If you are expected to be the leader, that must be made clear to every person on the team.

Draw on interpersonal influence as much as possible in these types of situations. Use the accumulated weight of your relationship with the person you are managing. Have you had personal rapport in the past? Will you have personal rapport in the future?

7. “I manage people doing work in areas in which I don’t have knowledge or expertise.”

Though it may sound strange at first, it’s not uncommon for managers to be responsible for people whose work is beyond their personal area of expertise. So how do you hold employees accountable when confronted with this complication? Learn. You don’t have to become an expert on the work that person is doing. But you do have to learn enough to manage that person.

It may help to think of yourself as a shrewd client and the employee as a professional you’ve hired. You don’t have to be a doctor to make sure your doctor is doing a good job for you, right? Approach your management relationship with this person in the same way.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,



Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done”( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: