July 5, 2016

How to hold someone 'accountable': First, define the term.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This story was updated on June 25, 2018.

    Good leaders know that they need to hold their team members accountable for specific action items—but what "accountable" means can vary, consultants Bob Frisch and Cary Greene write in Harvard Business Review.

    Different people bear different levels of responsibility for any given project, so each should be held accountable in different ways, Frisch and Greene write.

    Know what type of accountability you are offering or accepting

    On one end, there is the "issue owner" who has complete control over all decisions. This person can call a meeting, solicit opinions, and look for feedback—if he or she so chooses.

    On the opposite end of the accountability spectrum is the "team coordinator," who is primarily responsible for coordinating logistics, such as planning the meetings or scheduling the agenda. This person is accountable only for the discussion process, not the outcome.

    In between these two extremes, Fischer and Green add, is the tiebreaker, who can help the team make a decision but also should be prepared to make the final call if needed.

    "We don't advocate for one position versus another," Fischer and Greene write. "Different issues may call for different meanings of accountability in the same organization. What's important is to ensure that everyone understands what it means in the specific situation—especially the accountable individual."

    When you're handing over accountability for a project, ensure the person knows whether they are the issue owner, the team coordinator, or somewhere in between, Fischer and Greene say. Be explicit about what this person is expected—and not expected—to do in their role.

    In the same vein, when you're given accountability over a task, you should understand what's expected of you. If your supervisor thinks you are the issue owner, but you assume you're the team coordinator, you're going to run into problems later on when your boss asks for your decision.

    "Being explicit ... goes a long way toward preventing problems down the road," they conclude (Frisch/Greene, Harvard Business Review, 6/28).

    More important conversations managers should have with direct reports

    Strong communication with staff is one of the hallmarks of an excellent manager. But communication can be an abstract concept, so we've identified seven specific conversations managers should have with employees throughout employees' careers—and highlighted the resources we have to help.

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