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The best leaders hold their team accountable, but the best leaders also know that micromanaging is a terrible idea.

We all know that micromanaging is bad. Employees become unmotivated, it’s a waste of time for everyone involved, and employees never grow.

But of course, as a leader, you can’t never check in with your employees and let them do whatever they want, there has to be some control.

So managers are in a tough spot. How do you balance the two? How do you walk that very delicate line and keep your team in check while not looking like a micromanager?

While I want to say the best thing to do is to default to trust and expect your employees to perform the best, it’s a bit of a risky idea. If you avoid the micromanaging and then for whatever reason the employee doesn’t meet their results, that’s on you.

So of course you want to avoid that, but on the other hand, we know that autonomy is key to employee engagement.

Not only does it improve the morale of them personally, but it increases the morale of everyone on the team, frees up your time, and gets employees to take initiative.

In this post, I want to dive deep into this question and see how managers can get everyone to be accountable without micromanaging.

Micromanagement Versus Accountability

Before we go into detail answering this question, I wanted to quickly highlight the difference between micromanagement and accountability.

Micromanagement is when a manager takes over or watches every step of the people under them.

A micro-manager will take the work on themselves without involvement (or very little involvement) from the employees.

Mainly, they do not trust that the employee can do the job properly.

Accountability is taking responsibility for your actions. There are two types of accountability:

  • Personal accountability
  • Team accountability

Unlike micromanagement, accountability asks for an immense amount of input from the employees. Leaders will often ask employees to come up with the solutions to whatever problems there are to maintain that accountability.

A smart leader will emphasize the importance of accountability and get everyone on the team to understand what and who they’re accountable to.

Managers are accountable for their team, so it’s important that they lead by example.

Understanding the difference in the definition of these two will help us determine how to go about this.

As a leader, you want to avoid micromanaging at all costs, but you want to hold employees accountable.

The best part about all of this is that employees want to be held accountable for their work. Accountability means responsibility, and responsibility leads to several intrinsic motivators like purpose and accomplishment.

Holding your employees accountable is crucial to keeping them engaged.

Disengaged employees cost U.S. companies anywhere between $450 billion and $550 billion every year in lost productivity, so companies can’t afford to have disengaged employees.

The Case Against Micromanaging

We all know that micromanaging is bad, but just in case there are still any micromanagers out there, here is some of the research behind why micromanaging doesn’t work.

A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology1 showed that people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level.

When employees feel like they are being constantly watched, they get distracted and it affects working memory, according to the researchers.

What happens is employees don’t learn new skills or pay much attention to the tasks they’re doing, because they spend so much time worrying about the supervision, and become paralyzed by the pressure.

Another study2 from University of Pennsylvania professor Alexandra Michel found highly educated employees work more when given autonomy over their schedules. In fact, they’ll often work more than they should.

When employees were pressured to work more, they were less inspired, she found. But when they were allowed to set their own schedules, they could accept it because it was their choice.

Holding Your Team More Accountable

Did you know that one out of every two managers is terrible at accountability?

In an article for Harvard Business Review, after researching more than 5,400 upper level managers around the world, they found that holding people accountable is the single biggest thing that managers avoid doing.

From their research:

There is an even deeper explanation for the lack of managerial courage to hold employees to account for their performance.

The evidence comes from experimental studies of cooperation and the problem of “free-riding,” which reveal the individual- and group-level outcomes that accrue when some team members don’t carry their weight and drag on the performance of others.

The first lesson from this research is that within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice.

However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not.

But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job.

Here are a few ways to make your team more accountable:

  1. Set Clear Expectations

    This is the core of holding your team accountable. Setting clear, measurable goals makes it unambiguous about what is expected from an employee.

    If both you and an employee agree on what their goals are, it’s much harder for them to argue and it lets them have that personal accountability from the beginning.

    Using a system like Objectives and Key Results (OKR) with the whole team is the best way to hold the entire team accountable from day one.

  2. Openly Discuss Accountability

    Is the idea of accountability a taboo subject in your organization? It shouldn’t be.

    As a leader, get everyone comfortable with the idea of holding each other accountable.

    During team meetings or meetings about planning work, feel free to say something like “so, how will we hold each other accountable for this task?”

    This opens up the conversation and gets everyone comfortable thinking about accountability.

    Not only that, but ask your team members how they’d like to be held accountable, and come up with a process that is good for everyone.

  3. Use Lots Of Data

    A great way to build a culture of accountability is through data. Work hard to give your employees access to the data they need.

    Using analytics to help find out where the issues are can help make people more accountable.

  4. Work With Them To Make A Plan

    Work with employees to discover what actions need to be taken to make sure everyone can be held accountable and the results will be hit.

    Make them a part of that process, and work with them to make sure that everyone’s expectations are clear.

How Do You Hold Your Team Accountable?

Let us know in the comments below!