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Accountability in Difficult-to-Measure Roles.

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Certain functions and roles have a much easier time establishing accountability than others. We spent a good portion of our careers in Human Resources. Although managers look to HR for help in building accountability in their teams, we found HR teams often have more trouble holding people accountable than do their business partners. A key factor in this is the ease with which outcomes can be measured. Numbers-driven business areas such as Sales and Manufacturing are brimming with data on which to measure the attainment of goals, which enables the quick administration of incentives or repercussions. In these roles, two of the three critical elements of accountability are tied together (goals and consequences), making the task of holding someone accountable much easier. In other functions, it is not so easy.

Either you make the sale, or you don’t

In a Sales function, sales employee actions typically have a direct impact on the numbers, and the actions and outcomes are well understood. Consider sales tasks such as calling customers, making formal sales presentations, etc. These are relatively simple to track and have a direct impact on business outcomes (i.e., revenue). Salespeople may have additional administrative tasks (e.g., expense reporting) and the occasional “special project” that is a little more difficult to measure, but the core of their work is measured based on hard dollars or percent growth.

Likewise, a factory line employee’s physical activity results in something relatively quantifiable (e.g., create a weld, build a transmission, assemble a new car), and again, these tasks account for the core of their job. Although not necessarily the easiest jobs, sales managers and factory line managers do have an advantage over managers in other functions in holding their direct reports accountable. Due to the nature of the work, managers can more easily set numbers-based goals, establish consequences, and measure success. Keep in mind that authority, resources and ability to achieve the goal still vary, however, and need to be in place to create accountability.

But we’re professionals

Other functions, however, are not so fortunate. Many roles have goals that are not as readily measured, making it more difficult to hold employees accountable for the things that matter to the business. Support functions and mid-level management are two such areas. These roles often include responsibilities with complex, qualitative outcomes that cannot be easily associated with bottom-line business results (to adapt a John Wanamaker quotation: “I know half of my support efforts work, I just don’t know which half!”). To make things even more difficult, employees in these functions often are highly educated professionals who take offense when attempts to measure their work reduce it to a “metric”. Human Resources departments, in particular, find that measuring the success of their programs and initiatives (and holding people accountable for the success of those programs) is challenging. One common example is accountability for the ROI of an organization’s leadership development program. Although Kirkpatrick’s model has done much to help gauge the impact of training programs, training departments still struggle to get their arms around ROI. Because of that, success in these programs is measured not by contributions to business growth and bottom-line return (which senior management tends to refer to as a “success measure/metric” by which to hold someone accountable), but by the more easily measured participant reaction and learning scores.

But the light is better over here

The problem is that when the “real” success indicators go unmeasured, two things happen. First, the manager supposedly being held accountable for ROI, but measured by attendance as a proxy for ROI, will naturally work toward the goal of getting butts in seats, not necessarily focusing on the impact of the program. This may leave him or her open to negative consequences if the whole of the program is deemed a failure, even though the attendance goal was attained. Second and most commonly, no one ends up being held accountable for what is most important to the business – the impact of the program on leaders’ ability to drive the business forward. So what does this have to do with the title of this section? Well as the story goes, it is about the man looking for his lost keys under the street light. A passerby asks if he lost the keys here, and the man says no, over there. So when the passerby asks why the man isn’t looking for his keys over there, the man answers “But the light is so much better over here”. In other words, we often focus on what is easiest to measure (butts in seats), rather than what is most meaningful, but hard to see (ROI).

Don’t give up

Although we cannot offer a “silver bullet” to resolve the issue, we have found that with some extra effort, management in these functions can put in place better measures to increase accountability. Some of the strategies we use are:

  • Start with a clear understanding of what outcomes are most important to senior leadership. Never assume to know which measures they value, always ask.

  • Use multiple, weighted measures to “triangulate” on the primary measure for accountability.

  • Leadership training impact, for example, might be measured through a combination of performance ratings, employee engagement scores, self-assessments, staff turnover, number of promotions, 360-degree ratings, etc.

  • On the flip side, however, do not measure everything just because the data may be available. Pick the key indicators of success and ignore the rest!

  • Carefully define and communicate the measurement process. Although many are held accountable for “ROI”, few are able to explain how ROI is calculated, where the data came from, and so on.

  • Ensure direct reports have a solid understanding of performance expectations, measures and consequences – never assume people know.

  • Be in it for the long haul. One of the measurement difficulties in management and support functions is a longer time horizon for many of their efforts. Implement intermediate goals and provide progress measures to keep the direct report on track.

  • Take advantage of simple project management tools to plan and track progress, and report the results regularly. Ensure open and continuous communication about progress against goals.

  • Do not wait until the end to “surprise” the employee with results. This is not the Academy Awards – people want to know how they are tracking against their assigned goals.

While it is sometimes a struggle to ensure adequate measures by which to hold people accountable, it is worth the time and effort. In the absence of hard and/or easily accessible data on the impact of a particular initiative, other measurement tools, such as customer surveys, can be used to assess capabilities and determine consequences. If you happen to manage a function where solid accountability measures are readily available, then consider yourself fortunate. For the rest of us, particularly those in support functions and middle management roles, do not let the challenge of measurement make you give up on improving accountability within your function.


About the author: Rachel Radwinsky, PhD Rachel enjoys writing and sharing her views on a wide range of business and career-related topics. The Organizational Realities Blog serves as a creative outlet to express her observations and opinions freely - You've been warned.


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