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How to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them

Yes, it’s possible. Here are 9 practices for how to increase team accountability without squashing your team morale.

How to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them

If you’re a leader who wants the best outcomes, the natural question to ask is:  “How to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them?” 

However, this question can feel complicated.

As much as you want your team to be more accountable, you’ve never been eager to play “bad cop.” The last thing you want to do is become “that micromanager,” getting people’s nerves by checking in with people incessantly and scrupulously enforcing deadlines. After all, when did the role of a leader become the role of a taskmaster?

Simultaneously, you feel the swirl of work – the pace, the volume of it – consuming you and your team. You wonder if you even have another option than to become “that micromanager.” Someone makes a mistake. Someone misses a deadline… Those incidents aren’t going to cut it if you’re going to get to where you want to go as a team. Though you don’t relish in the role, how else are you supposed to keep your team accountable without cracking the proverbial whip?

Another option does exist. It is possible to keep your team accountable without micromanaging them – and with no proverbial whips cracked 😉

How, exactly? Here are some practices for how to hold employees without micromanaging them…

9 practices for how to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them.

DO NOT:  Perpetuate interruption cycle.

“What’s the status on this?”

It feels like a harmless question. And hey, as a leader, you need to know!

However, lighting up the @Mentions in Slack or overloading the email inbox only annoys – it doesn’t motivate. You can only imagine the feeling of dread you instigate when every single touchpoint of communication you have with a team is:  “What’s the status on this?”

Not only is it burdensome, but it also wrecks productivity. Every time you ask for a status update from your team, you interrupt the flow of work. Countless times have I had employees begrudgingly confide in me: “I spend more time preparing and writing status reports to my boss than doing the work itself.” Ouch. Could this likely be the case for your own team?

In short:  Every time you send “What’s the status on this?” at random times and expect an immediate response, you perpetuate a cycle of interruption that throws a wrench into productivity and reduces team morale

Instead of encouraging this rampant cycle of interruption, know that you can hit PAUSE before sending the “What’s the status on X?” ping, and do this instead…

DO:  Ask and answer the question:  “How will we know we will have been successful?”  

It feels obvious:  As leaders, we should establish what “success” looks like, from the start and circle back to communicate that picture of success, throughout the project.

However, according to Gallup only about half of all employees strongly indicate that they know what is expected of them at work.

Wait, hold up. What’s going on here?

We as managers think that expectations are clear – but employees don’t find them clear at all. A gap exists between our own internalization of expectations versus the reality of how well we communicate those expectations. Simply put:  We don’t communicate a picture of success clearly, strongly, and often enough. 

Specifically, a good pulse-check on how well you’re doing this as leaders is to ask your team members, during each of your one-on-one meetings (which we cover in depth in our training program), a few of the following questions:

  • Is it clear how we will know if we have been successful?
  • Is it clear what “great work” looks like?
  • Is it clear what “high quality” looks like?
  • Is it clear what “on time” means?

You’ll notice that all these questions begin with the phrase, “Is it clear…” This underscores how tightly coupled accountability is with clarity. A team doesn’t know what it should be accountable to if those expectations are not made clear. As leaders, it’s our job to make things clearer than they ever could be. 

Looking for more detailed guidance on one-on-one meetings? Make sure to check out our 1:1 module in Canopy.
Learn more

DO: Provide a mechanism to proactively communicate progress in an easeful, automatic, and asynchronous way.

If “What’s the status on this?” doesn’t prove to be effective for understanding what progress is being made, what is effective?

The biggest trap you want to avoid is the trap of our team spending more time on summarizing how they’re progressing rather than on making progress itself. 

Specifically, you want the way that your team shares progress to be 3 things:  

  1. Easeful. It should take no more than 5 minutes to write or share the status update.
  2. Automatic. There should be some kind of regular cadence to the status update, so it feels almost automatic to share each day and/or each week. 
  3. Asynchronous. Give your team the time and space to share an update on their own accord, at the beginning of their own workday, when it makes the most sense to them. Rather than calling a meeting or intruding with DMs at random times of day, an asynchronous schedule with guidelines (e.g., “Please share your status update in Slack every morning”), helps avoid the interruption cycle we discussed earlier that is so disastrous. 

As a result, here at Know Your Team, we internally use our own Heartbeats. This is an automatic check-in that comes in the form of a daily email and/or Slack message that asks:  “What did you work on yesterday, and what are you going to work on today?” This ends up being ensuring the way we’re communicating status updates is easeful, automatic, and asynchronous

Alternatively, you could ask your team to write a daily Slack or MS Teams message or email update that shares what they worked on yesterday and what they’re going to work on today and encourage folks to not spend more than a few minutes writing it. 

Whatever you choose, when you ensure that your status update mechanism is easeful, automatic, and asynchronous, sharing progress becomes effective rather than time-consuming. How to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them is rooted in this.

DO NOT:  Increase pressure on deadlines. 

You’re worried. This deadline matters

You can’t shake the feeling of, “Oh my goodness, I really want them to make sure they make this deadline and feel I should say something…”

It’s understandable. As managers, we care about the outcome (which is a wonderfully motivating force!). However, lingering on wanting to exert extra pressure on your team members because “I really hope they make this deadline” is sentiment is coming from you, not their work. It involves your own insecurity and anxiety that they might let you down. In fact, it has little to do with the reality of how they’re doing their work.

When you begin to feel this anxiety and temptation to exert pressure on deadlines, remind yourself:  You’ve done all you can to make the deadlines clear. Further pressure on your team only backfires. 

In his seminal work on motivation, Edward Deci found in his 20 years of research that when pressure was exerted on a person to accomplish a task, performance worsens, quality of outcomes worsens, the person learns less, and the person ends up not enjoying the task as much.

Rather than succumbing to the instinct of “Oh my goodness, I need to remind my team of this deadline and put on the pressure…” keep in mind there’s something else you can do to ensure that what’s most important gets done. For when it comes to how to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them, it’s the following…

DO:  Figure out what you can take off their plate. 

If you’re feeling concerned that your team won’t make a deadline, consider taking something off their plate. Everything doesn’t all need to get done now: What is something that isn’t as urgent at the moment? What is something that can wait and reappear later?

Work doesn’t just “happen” – it needs space and time to get done. And it’s up to you as the leader to create that space and time for your team. 

As a leader, ask yourself:  

  • What can I be taking off their plate so they can meet a deadline and/or achieve what is most important?  
  • Have I asked “What can I take off your plate?” directly to my direct report, in a one-on-one meeting?
  • What am I willing to say “no don’t work on that,” and to say “yes” to work on?

Space and time are ingredients to high-quality work. Ask yourself these questions as a leader to make sure you’re providing them. This is essential for how to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them.

Looking for more detailed guidance on one-on-one meetings? Make sure to check out our 1:1 module in Canopy.
Learn more

DO NOT:  Jump in and do something for them.  

When things feel tight for our teams, it’s tempting to do the work for them. You may find this unavoidable, depending on the stage and size of your team, and if upper management and/or the organization has expectations of you as a leader also producing individual contributor work.

However, in many cases, your job as a leader is to lead:  To set context and create an environment for your team to be successful – not to do the work itself. 

While you might think that jumping in and finishing up someone’s code is helpful, or taking over a sales call is giving someone a lift in the short run, in the long run, you cultivate a dependency. You send the message to your team: “Hey, you don’t have to own this because I’m overriding your work…

In short, you undercut your team’s ability to execute and fulfill true responsibility – and you actively stop your team from becoming truly accountable. 

Instead, how to hold employees accountable without micromanaging them means the following…

DO:  Give guidance on what to prioritize first, and why. 

All of the work feels important. However, when you say, “It’s all important and we have to get this all done by XX date…” you encourage your team not to thoughtfully figure out what is most important, but to haphazardly try to figure everything out at once. Prioritization – knowing what the tackle first and why – leads to strong execution and outcomes. 

As a result, you want to ask yourself as a leader:  

  • Am I outlining the accurate level of urgency rather than a perceived level of urgency?
  • To what degree can I make what is most important clear?

Practically speaking, during your weekly or biweekly 1:1 meetings with your team, you can ask the question:  “Is it clear what your top 3 priorities are?” to open up the conversation. We do this internally here at KYT, and find the conversation from that question to be massively useful. 

DO NOT: Making subtle conditional statements for what happens if they make a mistake.

“We’re all counting on you for this…” 

“If this doesn’t work out, this won’t reflect well on you…”

Sound familiar? These statements may all feel true to you – but the real-life reaction and behavior this encourages are not helpful if you’re trying to create a culture of accountability. 

True accountability involves team members stepping up and into their roles and owning responsibility because they want to accomplish something bigger – not because they’re scared that you as the leader will look poorly on them. 

Give your team the right reason for why they want to be accountable – rather than one tinged in fear.

This brings us to the last practice of team accountability…

DO:  Give a reason for why this matters and contributes to the overall bigger picture. 

Ultimately, we want our team to be accountable in order to accomplish certain outcomes:  We want the world to be better, or an impact to be felt by our clients, the industry, the world. That should be the driving, energetic force if we want accountability to be sustaining and self-generating rather than short-lived or contingent on us making rah-rah speeches as leaders. 

And so, as leaders, we must ask ourselves:  How are we connecting what needs to get done to the overall bigger picture of what matters? I’ve written more on how we can do this by co-creating and articulating vision in a team here.

From these practices, you’ll notice that creating greater accountability in your team is less about holding your team accountable and more about holding yourself accountable as a leader.

True team accountability is not about checking in on your team more or applying stricter deadlines. True team accountability is about doing everything you can to create the clearest possible picture for what needs to get done and why, and sharing as much context as possible to achieve those expectations. 

Only then will you create an outcome where the team is taking on greater responsibility, executing their work with fewer mistakes, and even exceeding your expectations what you thought could be possible as great work.

In sum, you can ask yourself these 7 questions to increase accountability without micromanaging your team:

  • Am I making clear how we will know if we’ve been successful?
  • Am I giving guidance on what to prioritize first and why?
  • Am I sharing enough context for my team to navigate uncertainty?
  • Am I outlining the accurate level of urgency rather than a perceived level of urgency?
  • How am I helping them see for themselves what progress needs to be made?
  • What am I taking off my team’s plate so they can appropriately focus on what matters?
  • How clear is it how their work contributes to the bigger picture?

When you keep yourself more accountable as a leader, you keep your team more accountable.

💡 If you’re looking to put these practices to use, you’ll want to try Know Your Team – will teach you how to keep your team accountable without micromanaging them. Try Know Your Team for free today.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.