The Delicate Balance: Promoting Accountability Without Suffocating Talent

· 4 min read
The Delicate Balance: Promoting Accountability Without Suffocating Talent

In the early days, managing this team was easy. You dreamed about ways to take the product to the next level. Your team’s passion and talent made your job a joy. You did whatever you could to clear the path for their ideas to become reality. And it worked — scrappy early versions of the product and the processes paved the way for growth.

Soon, you can barely keep up with the new features rolling in. Before you know it, you have gone from managing a handful to dozens of people. A bigger team means more money and more expectations. And as with any quickly growing company, it also means more fires to fight.

Much as you try not to, you think back nostalgically to simpler times when you knew each engineer’s strengths and weaknesses intimately and custom-tailored your mentorship to help them thrive. But now, faces once familiar fade into the blur of back-to-back meetings. When did joyful creativity turn into an obligation? There’s no time for relationship building, only coordinating tasks. You find yourself staying late, trying desperately to keep all the plates spinning but never feeling caught up.

This isn’t the type of manager you wanted to become. You miss who you were in those early days — available, supportive, and focused on unlocking potential. But the churning gears of scale have swept you up. There’s no time to dwell, though — every Monday morning, a million things need your attention. With a sigh, you pour some coffee and mentally brace yourself for another week, barely keeping this machine running. You used to think you could steer it, but now you just desperately hope you don’t get crushed inside.

Walking the Tightrope of Accountability

As an engineering manager, holding your team accountable without suffocating them is a delicate dance. Ideally, you want your talented engineers to be independent, but it never works out. Realistically, you want them to take ownership while also meeting commitments. It’s a tricky balance to strike. But with some careful nudging, you can promote accountability without micromanaging.

In the exciting rush of a growing team, it’s easy to defocus from people to only outcomes. But you don’t want to wake up one day unable to remember your last meaningful conversation with your reports. Fight to make space for it because it’s one of your key responsibilities as an engineering manager.

Make a habit of setting expectations clearly at the outset of any work, then checking in regularly to course-correct collaboratively. It would be great if engineers mind-read your desired milestones. In reality, you have to take time to articulate what you want and be very specific upfront about requirements, resources, and priorities.

Start by owning where you may have dropped the ball during the status meetings. Maybe you did not convey what “good” looks like? Have you failed to answer their questions for too long? This sets a standard for accountability rather than simply demanding it.

When you notice work missing the mark, address it quickly and with empathetic curiosity, not a knee-jerk disappointment. Ask how you can better support people being successful. Missteps along the way are okay, but not if they are repeated repeatedly.

The Power of Consistent Check-Ins

It’s easy to obsess over output without caring for the humans behind it. Regularly checking in with care and presence is the only reliable way to keep momentum.

When growth accelerates, you become overwhelmed and may stop scheduling one-on-ones to free up more “productive time.” After all, rockstar engineers should be able to manage themselves. But if you go that route, the distance grows, and so do problems under the surface.

The truth is that consistent check-ins are sacred. Start each one-on-one with a genuine personal check-in before diving into work. This grounds you in being humans, not just transactions.

Prepare enough to lead a fruitful dialogue but leave space for surprise questions. Your role isn’t wielding an interrogation light but offering compassionate curiosity about their experience.

And these one-on-ones are not the kind of meetings where you’re a passive listener. You need to prepare for them, write down an agenda, make notes during the meeting, and end with a set of steps each of you has to do before the next meeting. That’s the only way to make them productive.

Course-correct together. Own where you’ve dropped balls before highlighting performance gaps. Celebrate wins, then brainstorm improvements aligned with long-term goals. With consistency, these check-ins will transform your team’s cohesion and trust.

Setting Engineers Up for Success

If you randomly send off tasks to your team, don’t wonder why the features you’ve built feel disjointed. What seems crystal clear in your mind often gets lost in translation. Take the time upfront to prepare and get everyone aligned during the meetings.

Ground yourselves in the end vision by kicking off new features before breaking down how to get there. Then, together, you can define success — both for the business and for each one’s own growth. Aim for the team to feel like they are actively shaping the path, not just receiving instructions.

Getting granular on metrics provides helpful guideposts to track progress. Try not to constrain creativity with rigid recipes, though. Our brains often flow better with a focus on outcomes rather than process. But quantifiable indicators help you know the team is on track without you peering over their shoulder daily.

There’s an art to balancing guidance with autonomy. Draw the boundaries you are aligned to, then get out of the way for the team to work their magic. Inevitably, some course corrections will be needed along the way. But it’s easy to handle them when working together. Shared understanding drives accountability better than any top-down demands ever could.

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