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  • Accountability in action

  • It’s Monday morning and you are returning from an exhaustive one-week business trip while you were battling a flu bug. Your voice mail has ten messages that will have to be answered within the next few hours, e-mail is screaming for attention and you haven’t had time to grab a coffee. All of this noise surrounds you but the most pressing issue is to prepare for the meeting that is scheduled with your boss in two hours time. The meeting is to review the status of an important 18-month assignment for which you have been assigned full accountability. This is the thirteenth month of the project, which had a very smooth first stage but has been besieged by setbacks and foul-ups during the past two months. Three weeks ago your manager made it absolutely clear that he expected to see signs of improvement during the past few weeks – no more surprises. Following that discussion you sat with your four key people to review the situation and develop a short –term plan. You call in the four subordinates, requesting status reports from each. The first two subordinates provide good news. Their short-term assignments have been completed and the results are very encouraging. Then you hear the shoe drop. The third subordinate has made minimal progress in completing his assignments – he says he had other issues to deal with during the past few weeks. The fourth subordinate has encountered a significant technical issue that will impact the timelines for the whole project, particularly the good work that had been completed during the past few weeks. This subordinate has not communicated this news to any team member because he was waiting for your return.

    You sit in stunned silence – how could this happen? What do you say to your boss? What do you say to your subordinates? Where the hell is that resume?

    A manager is not only accountable for his own output but also for the outputs of his immediate subordinates. In the above case the manager has four subordinates.

    The manager has prescribing authority over his subordinates and he has the authority to instruct his subordinates to carry out particular activities and the subordinates are accountable for doing so, including carrying out the activities at the time prescribed by the manager. Let’s review the following questions based on the above case assuming that you are the manager involved in this predicament.

      1. Do your subordinates feel accountable for letting you know when their output will differ from that which was assigned to you?


        In the above case Subordinates number 3 and 4 do not understand their accountability that they must inform you whenever they are falling behind on a task with a prescribed time for completion. This is especially important on projects that require coordination between your subordinates or with other functions. In addition, your subordinates are also accountable for letting you know when they are ahead of schedule on an assigned task. This would allow you to assign your subordinate other tasks for completion.

      2. Is it fair for your manager to expect signs of improvement in the project and to hold you accountable for achieving a result? If you have been keeping your manager apprised of the progress (and lack of progress) in our project, what else could your manager reasonably hold you accountable for?


        There is no doubt that based on the above case your Manager will hold you accountable for the output of your subordinates which resulted in the project going off the rails and not achieving the desired results. Even if you would have kept your manager apprised your manager can hold you accountable for not having managed and coordinated the outputs of your subordinates closely enough to allow for remedial actions to get the project back on schedule.

      3. What was the surprise in the third subordinate’s account? When should he have given you that information?


        The third subordinate should have given you the information that he was too busy to work on the project right from the beginning. This would have allowed you to decide on what other tasks the third subordinate would stop doing in order to complete his part of the project. In addition this would have given you the opportunity to re-allocate resources to assist the third subordinate.

      4. When should the fourth subordinate have communicated to you about the significant technical issue that will impact the whole project? How will you handle his not having informed you?


        Subordinate number 4 should have informed you immediately when the significant technical issue arose. This would have allowed you to perhaps re-allocate resources to overcome this technical issue as well as to inform your manager about this significant technical issue. Your manager may also have had solutions to solve the technical issue.

        How you handle the subordinate not having informed you is a complex issue? It will entail a heart to heart talk with this fourth subordinate to review and analyze this communications breakdown. Is this the first occasion that this withholding of information has occurred? Is this an experienced or inexperienced subordinate? Depending on the circumstances, sanctions can be applied by the Manager starting from a written reprimand, to withholding merit or bonus pay, demotion or in applying the ultimate sanction of removing the subordinate from this role. Without that final authority of initiating removal from their role a subordinate can get a manager dismissed merely by lying down on the job and getting their manager in trouble with his/her own manager.

        Similar discussions should also take place with the third subordinate who did not inform the manager that he/she was too busy to accomplish the assigned project tasks in the required time frame.

      5. What do you say to your manager in this situation?


        You can only say to your manager that you are responsible for the output of your subordinates and that you will take steps to ensure that a similar situation does not occur again. In short, plead for forgiveness.

      6. What do you say to your subordinates in this situation?


        Have individual meetings with your subordinates to review their accountability to inform you whenever they are having difficulty in meeting and assigned task. The same would hold true when they are working on a task and they are ahead of schedule or have completed a task. This would allow you to re-assign your subordinates to do another task. Another key point is to also remind your subordinates especially the third and fourth subordinate that you are accountable for the outputs of your subordinates and for developing and maintaining a team of subordinates capable of producing the required outputs. Also, you can remind your subordinates that you have the authority to decide on their tasks-type assignments, to decide on their personal effectiveness appraisal and merit review and to decide to initiate removal from their role.


    The above case is an example of accountability hierarchies that are found in vertical organizations in order to get the work done. Managers hold immediate managers accountable for their own personal effectiveness in getting work done and for the output of their subordinates. Work and accountability cascades down successive levels and a system of organizational layers are formed that continuously produce work outputs.

    The accountabilities and authorities of a manager must be clear and understood by his/her subordinates in order for the work outputs to be completed satisfactorily.

    Also, the manager must examine his/her leadership practices. Does the manager take his/her time to set clear context to subordinates and to keep them informed about changes in their work? Are task assignments clear and do you spend sufficient time on explaining what you want them to accomplish? Are you a good team builder being clear on how you want your team members to work with each other? Do you coach your subordinates to help them become a better resource to you? Do you do team planning? Does the team review how to tackle complex assignments or projects? Do you monitor and observe how well each employee works and what they accomplish?

    To learn more about designing better accountabilities and lateral relationships within and between functions please go to the Global Organizational Design Report and review Steps Four, Five and Six in this report.

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