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Personal Accountability

You have a wonderful staff. You have given all the assignments and now it’s time to sit back and wait for the results to roll in. Sadly, not in my world. There is a lot more to getting things done than assigning tasks.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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You have a wonderful staff. You have given all the assignments and now it’s time to sit back and wait for the results to roll in. Sadly, not in my world. There is a lot more to getting things done than assigning tasks. Personal accountability is one vital, necessary ingredient. But it’s not your job to follow your staff around, checking to see that tasks are accomplished. So what can you do to enhance the level of accountability of your staff? (There are two lists of easy steps in the References.)

Managing the accountability of individuals

One fact you will have observed is that each member of your staff demonstrates a different level of maturity or responsibility. A good definition of an adult is someone who takes full responsibility for his or her actions, which can be very difficult! Therefore, as a manager, you need to assess the maturity level of each member of your staff and provide the appropriate degree of direction, coaching and guidance. This does not imply a detailed, formal assessment, but more of an observation of what works and what each person wants and needs to be effective on the job. For new staff members it may be necessary to provide very specific direction on what has to be done, how to do it, and to monitor the results with frequent coaching. This is the entry level of maturity. With time and experience, the employee will be able to take on additional responsibility and will require less specific direction. Your role shifts during this development process from providing specific guidance and close monitoring to ultimately describing the desired outcomes and providing an environment in which the employee can select the best way to achieve those outcomes. There are intermediate steps as the person assumes greater responsibility. The manager’s role is to be less directive and more participative, seeking more input from the person as he or she assumes increased responsibility. This process may sound complicated, but it quickly becomes second nature and is the essence of what managing people is all about.

An employee’s maturity level is a combination of ability or skill and willingness or motivation. He or she can have a high level of ability, but lack a willingness to actually do the work. Additional training would be useless in this situation. Maturity levels are also task specific. A person could be generally skillful, confident and motivated in most aspects of their job but would have a low level of maturity when asked to perform a task requiring skills they don’t possess. Understanding this concept is especially important in the transition process when one of your staff is given additional responsibilities. It does little good to provide training when the person already has the skills but lacks the motivation to do the job—able, but not willing! High levels of maturity guarantee personal accountability.

Developing people and self-motivation

A good leader develops the competence and commitment of their people so they’re self-motivated rather than dependent on others for direction and guidance. A leader’s high but realistic expectations lead to high performance of followers. A leader’s low expectations lead to low performance. Think about how often that statement has been borne out in your personal experience.

In order to develop an effective staff, a manager needs to motivate followers and to do that the management style and the rewards must be individualized and appropriate. Not understanding and using the concept of variable levels of maturity is one of the major contributors to poor personal accountability and low morale. Effective leaders need to be flexible and must adapt themselves to the individual situation and personality of each staff member.

(For another look at Situational Leadership see “Good Leaders, Good Actors,” Froschheiser, Lee, Lab Manager Magazine, Leadership & Staffing, January 2011.)

The role of performance appraisals

The best and first tool for developing and enhancing accountability is the performance appraisal. Set and agree on high standards that can and will be monitored jointly. This may seem like a primitive method, but all the necessary elements are there—expectations jointly arrived at, monitoring measures and consequences.

Simple steps to take:

  • Schedule periodic update meetings.
  • Provide the appropriate level of detail.
  • Ask “What do you need from me to be successful?”
  • Become less involved in specifics, or the “how to,” and more involved in the “what if.”
  • Set objective, “self-measuring” standards or metrics. Assist staff with incorporating measurements that will help them get on track and stay on track to achieve their goals.

(See “Performance Appraisals,” Pickett, Ronald B., Lab Manager Magazine, Leadership & Staffing, October 2010.)

Recently we arrived at a muffin shop five minutes after closing. When you are in this situation, you know that if the door is opened, it is likely that you have attracted the attention of the owner! If it is a staff member who opens the door, you have the best of all situations—a shop where the staff acts as if they are the owner! What happens at your lab door five minutes after closing?

Things you can do

Here are some more mature, longer-range steps you can take to achieve a climate of accountability:

  • Move toward a more participative climate.
  • Get input from your staff frequently and openly.
  • Nurture involvement in decision making, goal setting and performance monitoring.
  • Lead through collaboration.
  • Spot and reward individual initiative.

Personal accountability vs. team accountability

An important issue to resolve is whether to focus on the accountability of teams or individuals. The answer to this question will change depending on the projects you are working on. When that is established, set accountability standards that recognize and reward the appropriate achievements.

So if your lab has large projects and success is dependent on the aggregate outcome of the work of several contributors, ensure that your monitoring and reward systems shape team contributions, not individual ones.

In one of my jobs there were three peers. While each of us wanted to stand out from the others, we wanted to be highly effective as a team. It was the only time I recall that if you didn’t do something, it would be done for you! This was a great environment: competitive, and yet mutually supportive—not a cutthroat setting, simply everyone dedicated to getting the job done quickly and efficiently. How did that climate evolve? Each of us had a strong personal commitment to an important and challenging goal!

Checklist for assessing personal accountability:

  1. Do your staff feel like they have a positive role in the management of the organization?
  2. Are things that need to be done identified and resolved on the spot?
  3. Is your staff given the appropriate, individualized level of responsibility and support?
  4. Does a climate of mutual support and teamwork exist?
  5. Is there clarity and focus on the organization’s goals?
  6. Do people focus on team outcomes rather than individual contribution (assuming you need a team focus)?

What will you gain as a result of an environment with enhanced accountability?

  • High morale
  • Greater productivity
  • Staff maturity
  • Excellent retention
  • Easy access to new staff

Ronald B. Pickett is an organizational effectiveness consultant based in Escondido, Calif. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 760-738-8638.


Ian Cook, “How to Build Accountability in Your People,” How-to-Build-Accountability-in-Your-People.html

Millard MacAdam, “Ten Steps to Promoting Staff Accountability,” Ten-Steps-to-Promoting-Staff-Accountability/400

Ronald B. Pickett, “Performance Appraisals,” Lab Manager Magazine (October 2010). http://www.labmanager. com/?articles.view/articleNo/3840/