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Guide to First Time Managers: How To Hold Your Team Accountable Without Micromanaging

by Ng Kah Lok. |

“Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment.” - Peter Bregman

Let’s be real, nobody likes a micro-manager. Nobody likes people breathing down their necks every second of the day, rapping their fingers on their desk and expecting perfect results. Team management isn’t all sunshine and roses, and it definitely can be daunting for first timers.

There’s a fine line between an effective leader who holds people accountable, and an ineffective leader who scrutinizes their teams’ every move. A chain is only as good as its weakest link, and it’s probably the one that does the bare minimum.

It can be pretty tempting to micromanage if employees aren’t performing, but thankfully, there are a few simple elements you can provide in order to keep your team accountable.

1.  Provide Clarity

As a manager, it’s your job to communicate to your team what their job is. Without telepathy, it’s up to you to be clear and consistent with your directions. As a manager, you can apply the acronym ‘SMART’, where you should be:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant

  • Time-Related

Your instructions should be specific to the role that your employees play, measurable with identifiable progress, achievable and not outlandish, relevant to the end goal, and time-related with a set deadline. ‘SMART’ is easy to use by anyone, anywhere, no training required. 

Another important thing is to be clear with expectations. It’s always good to have a honest one-to-one conversation with your employees, where you run through what they should be doing and what you expect their output should be. Have the other person summarise the important bits to make sure you’re on the same page. That way, you’ll mitigate misunderstandings down the road.

2. Provide Constructive Feedback

Like it or not, everyone makes mistakes. I used to drone on and on with customers about small talk, and I usually didn’t pick up on the subtle eye-rolls or veiled excuses to leave. I assumed that small talk would entice customers to visit more frequently, so on and on I prattled. After one of my co-workers nervously brought it up to me as we were closing, I was initially flustered, embarrassed, and wanted to dig myself into a hole forever, but I learned a valuable lesson from it.

Honest, open feedback is an act of confidence and responsibility. Is the person on your team well-suited at delivering on their goals? Are they cooperating with others, or are they frequently going off track? Let them know! People should know where they stand, and as a manager, you are the one holding the binoculars. Give feedback weekly, or at the end of a tough day, so future experiences are handled with newfound insight.

This can also apply both ways — is there anything you could be doing to be more helpful? From personal experience, it is significantly easier to work with a manager who actively seeks out advice while giving out their own, than a manager who believes in a holier-than-thou mindset. If we don’t provide each other with feedback, we won’t become aware of our blind spots. Which means that someone like me will inadvertently continue to drone on and on forever.

3. Provide Support

Working is hard, no doubt about it. People say that if you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well I’ve worked in many jobs that I’ve loved, and trust me, I’ve worked a few days. In some cases, I felt completely swamped with work, knew that I would fail to meet a deadline, or was unable to do a satisfactory job without burning the midnight oil.

That’s when the manager (you!) should come in.

Your goal should not be to just slam an employee for falling behind, but to help them with contacts, resources, or new knowledge that your struggling colleague might need to make their project a success. I’ve worked in places where a supportive backseat manager can significantly boost the productivity and morale of an outlet compared to an outlet where the manager was just a grumpy shadow. 

The only trick here is support. 

Being easily contactable with a work chat group, encouraging open discussion in your office, or simply engaging in mild work chatter can key you into workplace hurdles which, more often than not, you’ll have the power to help your staff overcome.

You don’t need to watch their every move. You just need to observe, and if they struggle or actively reach out, provide them with assistance and encouragement.

4. Provide Consequences

Holding people accountable isn’t quite complete without consequences. 

It doesn’t have to be: “Do this or you’re fired.

It could be as simple as: “We really need to get this done by Friday. If it’s not done by Thursday, we’ll have to pull an all-nighter. Please let me know if you need any help.

If one particular colleague has not proven themselves accountable, and you are reasonably certain that they have had ample time to improve, it would serve them better to let them go.

Being held accountable can often be a surprise for those that have been left to their own devices for so long. If a member of your team is found lacking, you don’t need to chew them out, or stew quietly behind your desk. 

First, remind them of the end goal. “I was expecting this today – that’s what we agreed on.” Then ask them how they will solve the problem. “So what do you propose we do?” More often than not, this will politely knock some sense into them, and putting the responsibility back on them will make them feel much more responsible for their work.

Remember: accountability starts with you. Micromanaging is counter-productive – your goal should be to make accountability part of your team’s culture, not a sole responsibility that you bear on your own. Good luck!

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