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A Foolproof Way to Hold People Accountable

If we consider a simple definition of accountability as, “the ability to account for your own actions,” it seems surprisingly straightforward.  But, accountability also involves having clearly communicated objectives, being granted authority over those objectives and having predetermined outcomes for either success or failure. Any ambiguity over outcomes, objectives, and timeframes will affect your ability to be accountable. 

If someone asks you to hold them accountable or you are in a position that requires you to hold people accountable, there are a few key steps you want to take. The pros of accountability set clear, measurable, and documented expectations that will keep the person focused and move them closer to achieving their goal rather than holding them accountable to do something, sometime and somehow. Start to think like those accountability experts, and see yourself as a facilitator, enabler and supporter of the person that wants to be held accountable. Take pride in helping others and resist the temptation to jump in and complete the task for the other person.  Be candid, honest and have the intention to be supportive.  

To set the stage for holding someone accountable, create a clear plan that involves being able to answer the common questions of who, what, when and how.


A person needs to know what the task is that they are being held accountable for. If you are part of a team and a plan is being chunked down to smaller manageable tasks , be sure to attach a name to each task so there is no ambiguity about who’s doing what. For example, if you are planning a client event, assign names to who is designing the invite, sending the invites, booking the room, ordering the food, etc.


Be crystal clear about what it is that the person is being held accountable for and ask them to paraphrase and confirm the task. For example, if they want to be more organized for your next meeting, explore what that means for them. Is it just reading the agenda, or is it making sure the correct documents are available and presenting problems with suggested solutions? Once you have a commitment, write down the exact details and agree to move forward.

Some people use contradictory statements to explain what it is they are looking for. .For example, “I want an actual performance report on how our marketing plan is doing and not just a few charts and raw data.”


We are fortunate that time is quantifiable and exact, so setting deadlines would seem very straightforward however, we use words and phrases like “ASAP,” “when you get a chance,” “late next week,” and “sooner than later” to describe our deadlines. In your accountability conversation, describe when by using exact timeframes such like, “I need the website ready by noon PST next Wednesday, April 30.”


The process you choose to follow up with a person involves the trust you have in that person, how critical the task is, and how competent they are in completing the task. If it’s a routine task with someone who is experienced and has a great track record, it may be just a check back on their progress.  Consider what your intention is to be following up with them before you choose the timing of your follow-up. Explain your reasons for the follow-up and be candid. Don’t be afraid to ask the other person if the timing suits them as some people may feel like they are being micromanaged if the frequency is too often. When you both agree to the follow-up, you won’t be left wondering if you are too hands-off or too hands-on.

The follow-up

The goal of the follow-up is to see the current status of the task, if there are any barriers that are holding them back, and if they are still committed to their task. The follow-up plan you choose can be formal or casual and it can be based on the calendar date or the importance of the task. 

The two types of follow-ups are check-up and check back, and the one you use determines whether you are in charge or the other person is in charge of taking the lead. Use a check up when you’re giving a task and are nervous or have questions. If you have examined the person’s experience, the risks, and their track record, and are feeling tense, then you take the lead and be in charge of the follow-up. If it’s a risky task, then schedule follow-ups along the way to the deadline to ensure that it’s going well and that you have answered all their questions.

A check back is used when the task is straightforward and given to someone that’s reliable and experienced.  The other person is in charge and they will check back with you. They may suggest that they will follow up with you at the next meeting or touch base before the deadline.

Next time you have someone ask you to hold them accountable, remember your four basic questions and your follow-up. Then, you can feel confident that you are supporting that person in reaching their goal.

About Rosemary Smyth and Aaron Hoos

Rosemary Smyth and Aaron Hoos

Rosemary Smyth, MBA, CIM, FCSI, ACC, is an author, columnist and an international business coach for financial advisors. She spent her career working at leading investment firms before pursuing her passion for coaching. She lives in Victoria, BC. Visit her website at You can email Rosemary at:

Aaron Hoos, MBA, has worked in the financial industry since 1997. Formerly a stockbroker, insurance broker, and award-winning sales manager, today he writes for the financial and real estate industry as an educator and marketer. He is working on his second book. Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter @AaronHoos.

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