Creating an expectation of accountability can be difficult for any manager, but it is an especially common challenge for new managers. Often, they make the mistake of thinking they must establish their authority before they can hold anyone accountable.
In reality, new managers don’t have to sit around and wait for their authority to “catch on.” They can start creating accountability right away; all it takes is the right process, structure and support. As a learning leader, you can take these five steps to set up any new manager for success:
1. Reframe Accountability as a Process, Not a Slogan
Many new leaders understand the concept of accountability as nothing more than a slogan: “It is up to you to hold your people accountable!” However, those new leaders can struggle to understand what accountability really looks like in the context of a management relationship.
Most often, accountability is created when employees expect managers to document their performance and tie their performance to real consequences. This expectation doesn’t mean that accountability is only about punishment for negative performance. It simply means that employees expect that managers will evaluate and then recognize their performance — good or bad.
The key is to help new managers start thinking about the role they play in this two-part accountability process. It is up to managers to ensure that employees know what is expected of them — in advance — and create a fair and accurate record of each employee’s performance.
2. Engage the Entire Chain of Command
Accountability appears to be nothing more than a slogan when it is clear the entire organization hasn’t bought in. New managers may quickly start to feel that all the time and effort they are putting into documenting individual performance is wasted if that documentation serves no purpose other than to prove that they’re doing it. Their team will, too.
It is paramount that new managers are connected on the first day of their new job with a human resources (HR) professional to whom they can send performance documentation. Without the support and resources required either to reward someone or to impose negative consequences, managers will be unable to create accountability, no matter what they do.
It is also important to encourage new managers to engage the managers immediately above and below them in a routine of reporting on team performance in one-on-ones together. They should share relevant information but also make a point to recognize great individual performance as well as individual performance that is not so great. If employees know they may be mentioned in meetings with important decision-makers higher up in the organization, it will create a greater sense of accountability.
3. Turn Regular, Ongoing One-on-ones Into Opportunities to Build Trust
The biggest obstacle preventing most new managers from making the accountability process work is a lack of trust on the part of their team members. Unless the team’s previous manager was highly engaged in a routine of documenting performance, it’s unlikely the employees will trust a new manager to follow through. It is also sometimes the case that employees don’t trust a new manager to understand the work they do and, as a result, assume that he or she will document their performance inaccurately.
Teach new managers to think of regular, ongoing one-on-ones as their biggest opportunity to build trust. Contrary to popular belief, one-on-ones are not the time to forge personal connections with employees. They are the time to focus like a laser beam on the work: spelling out expectations, giving and receiving feedback, and documenting performance.
New managers should use one-on-ones as their way of deeply understanding who their employees are at work. What is the work they do? How do they do it? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can they improve? What obstacles get in their way? What type of manager do they need in order to do their best work? Keeping the conversation focused on the person’s work — not the person’s personality — is a surefire way for new managers to build their team members’ trust both in themselves and in the accountability process.
4. Make Documentation Simple and Routine
The second-biggest obstacle preventing new managers from making accountability work is the cumbersome nature of documenting performance in the first place. Many new managers find themselves overwhelmed as it is without having also to create an entire performance documentation system.
Start by providing new managers with whatever tools or forms that already exist in your organization: project plans, checklists, performance improvement plans or any forms they might have to submit to HR regarding employee performance. You might also consider providing them with pre-existing solutions from a third party.
Then, find ways for new managers to fit ongoing performance documentation into their existing routine. Have them devise a note-taking system that is simple and easy, whether it’s using an app or taking notes by hand. One of the most effective solutions is for managers to use email follow-ups as documentation, sending an outline of what they discussed and agreed on during each one-on-one, then saving those emails in a folder for future reference.
5. Create Clear Systems of Recognition and Reward
Employees want to know there is a fair and accurate system for recognizing and rewarding performance. They want to know, in clear and honest terms, exactly why they have or have not received special recognition. If new managers are unable to tie consequences directly to performance, those consequences will mean a lot less.
Find ways for HR to work with managers when it comes to breaking down and spelling out how the department or organization evaluates performance. Empower managers with company-wide standards they can use as a guideline not just for themselves but with their employees. Making the systems of evaluation, recognition and reward explicit leaves a lot less room for employees to speculate how much of their success is at a new manager’s discretion — improving accountability and creating a successful team.