Accountability in the workplace is a topic everyone seems to care about, but surprisingly few people understand. Many people feel like it refers to some type of “score keeping” to keep track of who is doing a good job. To others, it involves administering some type of sanctions or even a punishment for making mistakes. But when asked why people should be held accountable for their work, most business owners and managers reply with something like, “people need to be responsible for their work.”
The key to achieving accountability in the workplace is understanding a very important principle: accountability is learned from the culture of the workplace. Accountability cannot be forced on people, and punishments cannot be used to enforce accountability. In fact, punishments inevitably lead to disengagement, distrust, avoidance and high turnover rates.
Building accountability in a business requires a culture that creates and promotes both a mindset and a belief system around personal responsibility, teamwork, dedication to the job as well as to the team, and pride in the work. These factors are all an inherent part of the environment of a business. Often referred to as the “soft” part of business, the environment – or culture – of a business sets the tone and expectations for personal behavior. When the culture is designed to promote accountability, the business will flourish. When it is not, only a few people do great work – until they stop doing great work or leave.
So how is a culture of accountability created? What can any business owner or manager do to promote an environment in which people willingly take responsibility for their work and the results? The following are some real and concrete actions that any owner or manager can take to create and promote accountability.
1. Establish clear roles, team leadership, and individual ownership
People must know what is expected of them, what they are responsible for and who is leading the efforts. In most cases, there is an assumption that people will do the “right thing” although the right thing is never defined or identified. When this happens, the results are almost always poor. Instead, the process begins with performance-specific job descriptions that clearly identify individual job responsibilities. These responsibilities should be made clear on an employee’s first day on the job and reinforced consistently with performance reviews as well as frequent feedback. In team situations, the leader(s) must be clearly identified and empowered to lead the team’s efforts. Everyone must understand who the leader is, what authority she/he has, and what is expected of their team. Finally, everyone collaborating on a team or working independently must know what they are responsible for and how their work will be evaluated.
2. Build a sense of ownership for team results
Teams are vital for many kinds of enterprises. The combined efforts of multiple individuals working in synchronization can produce great results. But teams can also pose problems for individuals who may not believe they are a valuable member of the team, or that their efforts made only a small contribution to the results. Every team or organization has its “superstars,” or the people who excel beyond normal expectations. Most teams or organizations, however, are also made up of what are often considered “B” players, or the non-superstars. These are the people who are frequently unnoticed, and they can often feel unappreciated. When these people are not fully invested in a team’s efforts, the outcome will often be sub-optimal. The key to building a sense of ownership for team results always begins with the leaders who create and maintain the organization’s culture, and it continues throughout the leadership of a team. Every member of a team must be encouraged to be a proactive and valuable member of the team by their leaders. Regardless of how insignificant a role may seem to some, every role in a team is critical. After all, a good football team isn’t made up of eleven different star quarterbacks. Therefore, everyone should share in the recognition of a team’s successes. Likewise, if a team fails to achieve its assigned goal, everyone should feel some personal responsibility for the results. Ownership of the results is only attained when everyone understands his or her role and responsibility, and how that role affects the outcome of the team’s efforts.
3. Give people the freedom and control they need to make decisions
This can be a difficult challenge for many business owners and leaders. Everyone is familiar with the term “micro-management.” The effect of micro-managing is slow but can lead to the suffocation of initiative and accountability. After all, if a person feels the boss is going to tell them every little thing that must be done and how to do it, then what is the point of putting in any real effort or commitment to the work? Instead, and this is the hard part, individuals and teams must be given the freedom to do what they believe is best and the responsibility/authority to decide as they see fit. This does not mean abdicating responsibility or authority and letting everyone do whatever they want. The freedom allowed is not limitless, nor is the responsibility and authority for decision makers. All of this must be measured against individual, or team, abilities to handle a given job under a set of circumstances. A new employee will need more direction and specificity from his/her manager to perform a job, while a veteran who is familiar with a problem or task requires less. Leaders must be able to gauge the ability of a person or team to operate independently and then allow more freedom accordingly. However, leaders also cannot totally disengage from the efforts. This is a mistake many managers make by “delegating,” in which they assign a task and then ignore the progress or problems until the work is due for completion. The goal is to promote ownership and, when people are given the responsibility, the authority and appropriate freedom to complete a job. Finally, when individuals are given the appropriate recognition for their work, accountability becomes a part of the atmosphere of the business.
4. Avoid punishment
Unfortunately, punishment is often what comes to mind when some people think of accountability. The truth is that punishment typically makes a problem worse. Punishment builds resentment, distrust, and can lead to good employees vacating a position. One of the most common findings from the exit interviews of former employees is that they leave because of the punitive nature of their manager. Instead of punishing someone when a mistake is made, or when an effort fails, the key is to use the situation as an opportunity to teach a person how to perform better. This response not only builds trust, but it will also make a better employee. People learn well from mistakes – if they are shown why the mistake resulted in failure and how to avoid making that mistake in the future.
5. Pursue improvement
When things are not going well it is tempting to find out who is responsible. Most of the time, however, the experienced problems will be found in the processes, procedures or systems. This is the time to determine what is creating the problem rather than who. This method of continuous improvement emphasizes a constant assessment of how well things are going. Continually looking for ways to adjust processes, change a procedure, enhance or revise systems, and monitor the outcome is vital for achieving the best results. Focusing on finding the root causes in the non-people factors will make it possible to create improved methods or conditions that can be used repeatedly. Unfortunately, there are times when an individual is at the root of a problem. When this is the case, corrective actions must be taken. Hopefully, the situation results in a chance to provide constructive feedback and to assist the employee(s) and improve performance to meet the expected results.
6. Provide feedback and evaluation along the way
The best way to avoid a situation in which a person is the cause of problems while also building ownership in work, is to give feedback, constructive criticism and take corrective actions as the work is progressing. If a person is struggling with a task, providing guidance to help make a solution to the problem more apparent builds confidence and competency. Following these suggestions is a form of coaching and can be the most effective approach for improving almost any situation. The consistency, frequency, and specificity of feedback to let an employee know how she/he is performing helps them adjust to expectations and meet the requirements. Nothing breeds success like success. Thus, helping a struggling worker overcome a problem, or correcting their actions, builds confidence and pride. This will encourage the employee to take ownership in a job well done and they will not be afraid to take ownership when things do not turn out well.
7. Hold people responsible
When a person fails at a task, or does not meet expectations, they should be called out – but not in front of other people. Getting a “dressing down” in front of others is humiliating and has a negative result in almost every case. The manager should take a person aside and discuss the problem and determine what happened and why. This should not involve berating the worker; instead, it is the point at which the manager helps the worker lift back off the ground, dusts them off, and assists them in refocusing on improving and moving forward. It is vital that the individual recognizes what happened and can admit to it. Therefore, the worker must know and believe that she/he will not be punished for acknowledging a failure or a mistake. The ability to recover from failure with assistance and guidance, rather than recrimination, humiliation, or punishment, encourages an employee to take ownership of their work and strive for improvement. The challenge for the manager is to remain focused on improvement, not on inadequacies or fault.
Accountability is not just desirable but essential for a healthy business. The important drivers of an accountable working environment are found in the culture – not in the people. When the culture of a business stimulates an environment focused on continuous improvement, teamwork, recognition of everyone’s efforts or contributions, and personal responsibility, the business will prosper. When times get tough, as they almost always do, the company’s accountability culture will enable a working team to hang together and drive through the hard times. The people of a company will work together to find the answers and solutions to the challenges because they are invested in the business, whether they are equity holders or not. In the end, the one sustainable advantage that any business has is its culture, and it is up to the owner and the leadership to ensure that the culture promotes both accountability and responsibility.
At Cogent Analytics, we never stop looking for ways to improve your business and neither should you. So, check out some of our other posts for helpful business information: