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Accountability: What Do You Owe Your Direct Reports

| July 20, 2010

by Jim Bruce

Today’s reading is a short essay, reproduced below, by Roger Schwartz in his newsletter Fundamental Change.  He makes two significant points that caught my attention:  First, accountability is a two-way street.  Not only do your staff have accountability to their manager, but the manager, you, have accountability to them.  And, second, all feedback needs to be timely.  Said differently, it becomes stale very rapidly.  Schwartz suggests that if you have not given the feedback within a week of observing either something good that needs to be recognized or something ineffective that needs to be addressed, you have waited too long.  

So, take a moment and think about accountability as it applies to you and the work of your team and begin to develop some new practices.

Accountability: What Do You Owe Your Direct Reports?

What do you owe the people who report to you? What are you accountable to them for?

When we think of accountability, we usually think of employees being accountable to the people they report to. But accountability is a two-way street, and less often do we think about what we owe the people who report to us. As a leader with formal authority, you have certain rights. With these rights, come certain obligations or accountabilities. When it comes to accountability, it turns out that the right thing to do is also the effective thing to do. Here are a few accountabilities at the top of my list:

An explanation. Many years ago, I saw a quote that went something like this: “To people who have more authority than us, we explain our behavior; to people who have less authority, we don’t. And the latter notice.” (If you know the source for this quote, please let me know.) As leaders, we reserve the right to make decisions, but with this right comes the obligation to explain our decisions and actions. When we are entrusted to make decisions that affect others, we owe them an explanation of our reasoning. Accountability aside, it’s also good practice. If you don’t explain your reasoning, the people who report to you will make up their own explanation of your behavior. This generates fruitless conversation among your employees as they try to sort out your intent and react to it. Bottom line, this often costs time and money and leads to poor implementation as they misinterpret your intent.

Timely feedback. As a formal leader, you owe your direct reports quick feedback about their performance. If you have been thinking for more than a week about something a direct report did that was ineffective, you have been holding on to it too long. In a year-end performance appraisal, if you give a direct report a month-old example of how he didn’t meet your expectations and it is the first time you have told him, the statute of limitations has run out. You’re not being accountable if you withhold the feedback for a month – which prevents him from using the information to improve – and then use it to lower his performance score.

Identifying your contribution.  When we talk about a manager and a direct report, we say they have a reporting relationship. In a relationship, each person makes a contribution. As the leader, you owe your direct reports an honest assessment of how you have contributed to the situation.  That means talking about how your actions or inactions may have contributed to your direct reports’ reduced effectiveness. Does this mean assuming that you and your direct reports equally contributed to their poor – or stellar – performance? Of course not. But if your goal is to get an accurate picture of their work so you can both improve, it’s neither effective nor accountable to ignore your contribution.

What do you think you owe your direct reports? 

–Roger Schwarz

Written and edited by Roger Schwarz, copyright Roger Schwarz & Associates, 2010. All rights reserved.“) <>