What you need to know about setting accountabilities

Setting accountabilities is no more complicated than writing down, then having a conversation with your people about what the organisation needs them to produce in the next period of time (usually a year).

An easier way to think of this is in terms of outcomes, results or even requirements, by asking the question ‘if whatever I describe on this piece of paper is 100% guaranteed to either appear or have been delivered at the end of the year, what would it be?’.

Most roles will have between 3-7 key results that they are asked to deliver each year, use this as a rule of thumb when determining how many.

The challenge in this process is that it requires imagination.  That is, the future needs to be imagined, then described to your people so they can then use their capability to go about delivering it. 

Describing Accountabilities or Results

As a way of describing it, you can use the following categories:

  • Quantity or Deliverable – what do you actually want to see delivered, and if there’s any related volume amounts (sales dollars, square kilometres maintained, number of shows successfully run), put these down
  • Quality – what is the sufficient quality standard that tells the person ‘you’ve done enough’
  • Time – when or how often does the above need to be delivered, and note any milestones along the way
  • Resources – what will the person be provided so they can deliver.  Not just equipment and funding, but which other people have you set up to work with them?  This can also include any limits and boundaries which aren’t to be crossed, remember, the more clear the boundaries, the more freedom people have to bounce around within them.

 The conversation is more important than the document

The key to the above is not in how well you can write down QQT/R for each result or accountability the organisation needs.  Instead, the key is the quality of the conversation you have with each person when you sit together and go through the results they are being asked to deliver.  We want honest dialogue about what’s required, what’s possible and perhaps discussion about how it can be done.  In the end, the manager still gets to set the accountabilities on the behalf of the organisation, but any aspect that allows the employee choice is best provided to them.

Why?  Because people don’t commit to things they don’t choose.


How can you do this? 

It’s up to you, but you might start with

  1. Provide the overall mission of the area which the person’s accountabilities form a part of
  2. Document the accountabilities clearly, but make sure they don’t look so final that it seems like ‘no correspondence will be entered into’
  3. Give people the chance to read through the document first and consider what questions they may have
  4. When you meet, remember the environment makes a huge difference.  Turn off your phone.  Don’t cancel the meeting, instead prioritise it.  Sit next to each other (not across the desk in your big chair) and go through it carefully, making hand-written notes as you go.
  5. Make sure you ask, at the end, ‘so, are you willing to commit to delivering these results’.  If you sense any doubt, ask about it and listen.
  6. Then ask ‘what do you need from me so you can deliver these results’.  Anything you can provide that’s reasonable…do so.  Strong relationships are an exchange of value, not one-way taking.
  7. Keep a record of the final accountabilities so you can pull them out at regular intervals during the year and discuss progress with a view to helping their learning.


A useful mindset to put yourself in is the same as if you were contracting a respected builder to renovate a significant portion of your house.  You would spend as much time with them as required, you would get their input, you would then make your final decision and ask them to deliver it.

Then, as the work progresses, you would check in, ask how things are going.  When you’re happy, you’d say so, and if you see things that weren’t what was agreed to, you’d raise them.

Don’t let the role relationship of manager-employee become one of parent-child.  The workplace is an adult community, and both managers and employees sometimes need help see it this way.  Imagining ‘how would I deal with a builder who I respected in this situation’ can help make sure we are having adult conversations.

Final point

Drop the illusion that perfectly written accountabilities takes the uncertainty and anxiety out of getting work delivered.  It doesn’t, because the world doesn’t work like that.  Instead, see this as the two of you giving it your best possible shot to get things started right, then set off down the road together.

And when either of you feels anxious, that tells you it’s time to talk.


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