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Holding others accountable

4 min read


When I was young and new to a corporate position, my manager, Karen, gave me an assignment that involved translating a confusing government regulation into a benefit that would be available for our employees. She was expecting a proposal from me that would detail what needed to be done and then to lead the implementation of the benefit.

At first, I struggled to understand the regulation and had difficulty grasping how this could be put to use in our company. Karen refused to let me off the hook by giving me the answers (that I was pretty sure she had); she simply trusted that I would figure it out. She checked in from time to time to see how I was doing, spoke encouraging words, and left me alone to work out the details. Her tactics eventually resulted in a proposal and the implementation of a significant benefit for our workforce.

Had Karen become impatient or used tactics that were intimidating, I would have frozen and possibly failed to produce a final product. I’ve never forgotten how she handled the situation even when it became frustrating for me. She held me accountable in a calm and respectful way, trusting that I would figure it out. I did, and, in the process, gained a great deal of self-confidence. I completed the project successfully. I was now ready for the next challenge.

The lessons I learned from Karen were valuable to my future career, and since you may also struggle with the idea of holding others accountable, here is what I learned that might be helpful for you:

Use a light touch: It’s not uncommon for managers to continually and forcefully check in as a means of holding someone accountable. These tactics rarely work and can terrorize the very people who are expected to respond to them. Karen tactfully checked in when she felt the need, so I was always vigilant in moving forward in order to have something to report. Most importantly, she was open and willing to listen when I got stuck. Shaming, blaming, interrogating or rescuing would only have served to slow me down. Her gentle and occasional questions, her excellent listening skills and her open demeanor were enough for me to keep me on track and know that she was supportive.

Treat them as equals: It can be easy for a manager to make someone who is struggling with an assignment to be made to feel “less than” or beneath them, but it doesn’t do any good and can make the situation worse. I appreciated that Karen treated me as an equal without using her position to intimidate. Never once did she express impatience or frustration. Having worked with managers in my short career who did the opposite, I was grateful for that. The way she treated me gave me a lot of freedom to be creative and explore different options without feeling inordinate pressure (the pressure I felt came from me, not her).

Encourage them with trust: Distrust breeds distrust throughout an organization. When you distrust the capability of the good people you’ve hired, you spread fear, doubt and unnecessary caution as people hold back on taking the initiative and being creative. Karen was confident that she had hired the right person to do the work that needed to be done. She trusted that I would figure things out for myself and expressed her encouragement openly along the way. Karen’s faith in my abilities helped me to deliver a great product to our employees.

Great leaders know that accountability is a key to great employees and exemplary organizations. They recognize that their dedication to accountability, with a light touch, equality and trust, is what drives individual growth, development and confidence. The end result of holding people accountable in this way is a great organization.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.

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