Accountability, more specifically how to keep people accountable, is one of the most common questions I get asked. The hard truth is that you can not delegate accountability and you can not force people to be accountable. Accountability is something people need to accept for themselves. They need to feel ownership and a sense of responsibility all on their own. This does not mean there is nothing you can do. In fact, creating a culture of accountability is a key element to the success of your business.
Accountability means that people are responsible for their performance, actions, and decisions. It is about ownership and initiative. It means employees recognize that other people are depending on them (and their work) and that they feel compelled to follow through on their commitments. Accountability is about having open, honest, proactive conversations that build trust and lead to higher producing teams.
Accountability in the workplace is all about setting and holding people to a common expectation and making people feel that they are part of something greater than themselves. Clearly defining and upholding the company’s vision, mission, and goals can be a great way to align your team against a common purpose. Employee accountability means holding all levels of employees (from the part-time hourly worker to the president) responsible for accomplishing the business goals.
Conversely, the lack of accountability in a workplace can create problems within a team. According to Partners in Leadership, a lack of accountability can lead to:
- Low team morale
- Unclear priorities across the team
- Employees who are less engaged
- Missing team and/or individual goals
- Low levels of trust
- High employee turnover
Despite the fact that we can not make people feel accountable, there are a number of things you can do in order to create a culture of accountability within your organization.
- Be the model of accountability. As the leader of the organization, you set the tone, culture and expectations for your team. Therefore, you need to model the behaviors you expect to see. Complete your work before the deadline, show up on time and prepared for meetings, own your mistakes, and support you team when they need it. You need to take ownership and keep commitments. If you don’t do it, nobody else will either.
- Accountability starts with you. As the leader, you own accountability. All successes and failures within your organization begin and end with you. Don’t try to shake blame or it will negatively impact your ability to hold other accountable.
- Be crystal clear about your expectations. Who is responsible for what action, step or outcome? Assign actions in a meeting. Write out next steps and timelines. A Gallop study found that only 50% of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work. If people don’t know what you want from them, it becomes much harder for them to deliver on your expectations.
- You need to actually hold people accountable. Check in. Review their work. See how they are doing, where they are stuck, and how you can help. Giving tough feedback isn’t fun, but it gets easier the more you do it. Make sure your feedback is clear and direct. You do not want to leave space for ambiguity or things open to interpretation. When feedback comes from a place of care and support it is better received and makes the difficult conversations less intimidating for both of you. Make sure you are giving positive feedback too, so that you are encouraging the things you want to see.
- Request team updates. If the success of a project is dependent on contributions from every member of the team, have the team report out on the status of their work to the entire team regularly. Ask for updates and where they are stuck. This allows the team to understand the progress, where they might get held up, and to jointly problem solve. It also serves to add a level of ownership as nobody wants to be the person telling the rest of the team they are holding up a project because they didn’t do their part of the work.
- Accountability is continual. Accountability is not a onetime thing. It is something that needs to be present always. Think about how this works with your kids, when you are inconsistent you send mixed messages and they will try to find the loopholes to push the boundaries on your rules every chance they get. It works this way with your employees too. We are programmed to do the minimum amount of work needed. If you relax your standards or expectations even once, you will often see employees try to see if they can get by with the reduced output going forward.
- Apply accountability consistently. You need to apply accountability consistently and fairly across your entire team. If you play favorites it demotivates the team and leaves everyone open to not upholding their commitments.
- Set your team up for success. Nobody wants to take accountability for things they know will fail or that they have no control over. Give people the level of responsibility, decision making, and tools they need to succeed.
It is important to remember that while accountability at work is critically important, it also needs to be balanced with the need to give employees autonomy in their roles. Employees must feel empowered to do their jobs so they can take ownership of their work and strive for excellence. Fostering this culture of employee accountability will help yield a high-performing organization.