Responsibility and Accountability

As an employee, you were responsible for completing job tasks and work projects. You may have had limited authority to delegate certain responsibilities to others, but for the most part the line of authority ran in the other direction. Your manager delegated to you, and you carried out the assignment, though your manager bore the brunt of accountability for how well you did your work. When you succeeded, your manager got the bulk of the credit. When you failed, your manager took the fall.

You're a manager yourself now. Though you undoubtedly have a heavy load of responsibility, you have the authority to assign tasks and actions to the employees who report to you. You also accept accountability for their performance. We hope that when things go well you share the glory (along with any tangible rewards) with those who did the work. We also hope that when things turn out not so well, you have the fortitude to suck it up and take the hit. This is why you get paid the big bucks. Afterward, of course, there'll be time enough for constructive review of what went wrong. Accountability summarizes the concept of “The buck stops here.”

The common perception is that accountability is related to negative consequences, the fallout from circumstances that go awry. But accountability also encompasses the positive consequences. When a project comes through and accomplishes its objectives, as its manager you are the first and most prominent to receive accolades. When things do go wrong, it's more effective and productive to look at the circumstance as an opportunity for learning — for employees and for you. How you handle responsibility and accountability is often the single most important aspect of your position as manager and the key to your future success in management.

Lewis toiled long and hard as a computer programmer before his superiors finally took notice and promoted him to manager. The promotion was long overdue, Lewis felt, and he threw himself into his vision of a manager with great zeal. He felt important, he acted important, and most of the time, he rushed around looking important. Now that he had a real office, he closed the door whenever he was in it.

Not sure whether they should knock or just walk in, employees took to waiting for Lewis to emerge — which he did mostly when he needed something or to grandstand about his latest accomplishment (which always happened solely because of his extraordinary abilities, not because of any contributions from the department, to hear him tell it). When Lewis communicated at all with employees, it was through e-mail or Post-It notes left on their computer screens.

Lewis's behavior turned out to be self-sabotage. With no human bond to him, people in the group short-circuited him. They failed to rally around projects. They fulfilled their responsibilities, but they did only what they had to do and nothing more. They made it clear to upper management and to Lewis's counterparts that they really had minimal interaction with Lewis. Ultimately upper management restructured department lines, which eliminated Lewis's department and job. While Lewis's employees all received transfers to other jobs within the company, Lewis got a severance package.

When it becomes necessary to resolve a problem with an employee who reports to you, always offer the opportunity for a fresh start. The person should not feel compelled to continue a certain pattern of behavior with you. No matter the trail of angry words that follow the person into your office, let it stay at the threshold. This lessens the pull of past behavior (however immediate that past is) and allows you to break off on a new path that hopefully leads to resolution.

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