From Both Sides: How to Foster Accountability in the Workplace
The term “accountability” is tossed around almost every organization. Managers use it to keep employees in line and employees use it when they lack support from management. Everyone wants or needs accountability, but few operate in a healthy environment to wield it responsibly.
Managers: Your employees won’t become more accountable overnight just because you want them to.
Employees: You need to work with managers to set goals and create opportunities for ownership.
Let’s take a look at the issue from both sides, and examine what employees and managers need to know about accountability in the workplace.
For Employers: Accountability Starts on Day One
Too often, executives bring up accountability when teams are making mistakes or performing at suboptimal levels. Leaders who want their teams to be accountable need to emphasize its importance on day one, and practice the values of accountability in their daily work lives.
“No executive or business can be ‘sort of accountable’,” Sam Reese, CEO of executive coaching organization, Vistage Worldwide, writes. “It requires a commitment from the top and adoption throughout the organization.”
Rather than using the term “accountability” to mean finding someone to blame when there’s a problem, Reese encourages companies to give accountable employees ownership and autonomy over projects, decisions and results. It should be more of a reward or opportunity to build trust than a punishment.
Reese isn’t the only one who realizes that forced accountability isn’t going to motivate employees or solve your organization’s problems.
“Intimidation doesn’t solicit authentic accountability, and any sense of responsibility born of fear won’t last long,” David Hassell, CEO of management solution provider 15Five tells Forbes. “Sure, people will get their work done, but it isn’t self-motivated. They’ll only perform to the point where they won’t incur your wrath.”
When accountability discussions only occur when an employee is reprimanded, he or she will grow to hate the term, rather than embrace it.
Leaders Often Remove Opportunities for Accountability
Just because managers say they want employees to be accountable doesn’t mean they make it easy for their teams. “We want employees to act like owners, but many times we discourage their accountability by treating them like renters,” Randy Conley at Leading With Trust writes.
Conley lists a few ways that managers hurt accountability — even if their actions are well meaning:
Leaders micromanage employees and check in or ask questions every step of the way.
Leaders insist on doing things a certain way and refuse to listen to new ideas.
Leaders shield employees from the consequences of their actions because they want to protect them.
While a manager might think they’re taking a leadership role and helping by micromanaging or protecting team members, they’re actually stripping them of any sense of ownership or accountability. This leaves your organization with employees who won’t try because they see what a futile effort that is.
In some cases, employee accountability can be a life or death situation, the team at policy management software provider PowerDMS writes. First response team members, for example, need to know that they can make decisions on their own and that they won’t be blamed for situations out of their control.
Without these clear parameters, first responders are unable to act confidently and patient lives may be at risk. Your office might not have these actual life-or-death elements, but employee behavior certainly impacts the lifeblood of any business: productivity and profit.
Your Management Strategy Determines Accountability Levels
Accountability isn’t a concept that can be executed on its own. It’s not like attention to detail that most people can add to any task they complete. If employees are going to be accountable, they need to know what’s expected of them.
Consultant Andrew Jensen emphasizes that managers need to provide definite instructions and goals for employees. Without a clear map of what is expected, they have no idea what they need to do or how they can take accountability for their work. Too often, managers lead with accountability as a professional way to say “just do better.”
As a solution, Catherine Park at Hppy suggests the RACI model of leadership. This helps leaders feel more comfortable giving responsibility to their employees without worrying about letting go. The RACI model is as follows:
Responsibility: work and expectations are clearly defined across the team.
Accountability: employees take ownership of the work and drive decisions.
Consultation: managers are readily available to answer questions or provide input.
Information: teams are kept up to date on any changes that could affect their work.
With this model, accountability is introduced at the start of the project, and both parties work toward success. Employees own the work and make decisions, but managers are there to provide guidance and updates.
The team at human resource solutions provider Tandem HR also encourages managers to focus on performance rather than time investment. Long hours don’t necessarily lead to quality results, and your fast-but-good employees could feel overshadowed when average employees pull long hours to show their dedication. Accountable employees want to be valued for their work, not their time.
Management Should Share the Good and Bad Actions of Employees
One of the main reasons why accountability becomes a punitive term is that managers fail to let employees know how their work contributes to the organization or when it helps the company as a whole.
“Employees often have no idea if they’re making a contribution or not — and radio silence from their supervisors does nothing to correct this,” Craig Hickman at Partners In Leadership writes. “Tackle communication systematically, with scheduled check-ins and evaluations. Remember: meaningful communication inspires positive attitudes towards work.”
This doesn’t mean you have to praise your employees for every single thing they do, but you need to strike a balance between constant criticism and constant praise.
For Employees: Work With Your Leaders to Develop Ownership Skills
To understand why some embrace accountability over others, consider each individual’s locus of control. There are two thought processes most people have when it comes to their lives, George Dickson at recognition and rewards platform Bonusly, explains:
External: Outside factors affect your success or failure. The environment, your co-workers, and other elements can control your destiny.
Internal: Inside factors affect your success or failure. You are the only one who determines whether you hit your goals.
Dickson explains that most people have a balance between these two categories, and that the balance shifts situationally. However, if you look closely you can see which belief each employee follows.
If a team misses a deadline, do team members they blame themselves for not allocating enough resources and setting more check-ins, or do they blame a late shipment, absent team member, or client for the problems?
Workers with an internal locus tend to be more accountable, but they can also be harder on themselves than they should be.
While an individual's own belief system regarding how they attribute causes of success or failure cannot be fundamentally changed, companies can take steps to support their employees. For example, Andre Lavoie, CEO of ClearCompany, writes that companies need to evaluate the hiring and onboarding process to make sure employees have the tools they need to succeed.
Firms start by evaluating the quality of the hire: how much of a learning curve did this person face? How quickly did they catch on to the training?
Then they evaluate the quality of the onboarding: did the employee have the materials they needed? Was there a support system in place?
This creates fair accountability. Companies can’t hold quality employees back because they never received the training or tools to succeed. The locus of control is balanced between two factors.
Employees And Leaders Can Work Together
If employees are struggling to take ownership of their work, there are steps they can take. Transformation Management president Janet Britcher encourages managers to get the tools they need to be accountable. Even employees can help with this process, by providing feedback for their higher-ups. A few ways managers can learn how to embrace accountability include:
Meet team members where they are — and understand why they are resistant to delegating or taking on work.
Help leaders provide clearer goals, expectations, and outcomes.
Teach them basic training techniques so they can better help you learn.
Show them the benefits of delegation and proper training.
Hearing that you’re not taking ownership or responsibility isn’t easy, and your manager might not appreciate hearing that they don’t give you the opportunities they need.
Rodger Dean Duncan, author of Change-Friendly Leadership, shared a story where he consulted with a company with 1,300 employees. Out of the entire company, only six received a “Needs Improvement” performance rating.
Employees who are going to be accountable for their actions need to be ready to own projects and receive honest feedback when there are problems or the work doesn’t achieve set standards, and managers need to be ready to evolve to meet employee needs.
One Person’s Actions Can Affect the Whole Organization
In order to be effective, accountability standards need to be uniform throughout the organization. If one employee feels like the rules don’t apply to them, or your department sees that mistakes can go unchecked, then others in the company will start to follow suit.
“One shortfall snowballs into bigger shortfalls,” Bryan Rusche writes at SoapboxHQ. “Tolerating missed deadlines, lack of punctuality and unfinished work has the tendency to make this behaviour ‘no big deal.’ People learn that the real deadline is a week from the published one; that consistently being 10 minutes late for a meeting is the norm; that sub-par work is acceptable.”
When accountability is a core part of your company culture, team members will be more committed to the work and employee morale will be higher. A spirit of support and inclusion will be established, which can be a lifesaver to those who are struggling.
“A salesperson will probably know he is the only one who didn’t meet his sales goal,” Jeff Miller at Insperity writes as an example. “Without the encouragement and push to improve, he may feel ignored, discouraged and devalued, which may lead him to quit.”
Employees can work together to reach their goals and prove they own their assignments. The salesperson mentioned above could receive peer training to improve their outreach process or help with certain tasks so they can focus on closing sales.
Accountability Does Not Mean Engagement
Both employers and employees need to realize that there are limits to what employees can be held accountable for.
In an except from their book, Building a Culture of Ownership in Healthcare, Joe Tye and Bob Dent explain that employers can hold people accountable for deadlines, the standard of work, and following concrete expectations. However, they cannot hold employees accountable for soft requirements like loyalty, emotional presence, working passionately, living company values or caring about their jobs.
Accountability does not mean engagement, and even some of the most accountable employees will leave a company if they don’t feel respected or cared about.
There’s no way to force accountability within an organization. When leaders and team members work together to change the overall culture, however, accountability can rise up and down the ranks.