Organizations with a culture of accountability have higher performance, employee engagement, and creative innovation than their competitors. Most executives recognize these benefits. In a 2015 survey of HR and business leaders, 73% selected personal accountability in leadership as the top human capital priority for the coming year.
But few organizations are able to achieve true accountability based on trust and ownership. If you’ve ever caught yourself daydreaming about having employees you could trust to get their jobs done well and on schedule, you may have an accountability problem. In that case, check out the video below for three essential steps to building the culture you need.
What is accountability?
Simply put, accountability is doing what you’ve agreed to do.
When people go to work, they have implicitly agreed to do a job and complete specific tasks, usually within a defined time frame. When they hold themselves accountable, they follow through on that agreement.
That doesn’t seem too hard, does it?
(OK, there’s more to it, but let’s keep it simple for now.)
However, most organizations don’t have a strong culture of accountability.
According to the Workplace Accountability Survey, 82% of people don’t hold others accountable, 93% don’t feel they can be accountable themselves, and only 33% view a due date as a commitment.
What’s driving this? In the survey, those who claimed they could not be accountable said they were not sure of the company’s goals and priorities. Other drivers may include resistance to change, failure to value important tasks, or distractions.
These are common challenges, but most companies don’t have the systems or culture to combat them. So they waste resources on repetitive training, expensive automation, mistakes, rework, and poor morale.
And for many of us, accountability has a negative connotation. People feel that they are only noticed when there’s a mistake. Managers want to avoid conflict, so instead of holding others to their promises, they push work onto people who follow through and burn out their best producers.
Key 1: Priority-Aligned Habits
The point of accountability is to improve business results. And business results come from specific employee actions. So the first key is turning the actions that create the best results into habits.
Accountability is about doing what you’ve agreed to do, so for those most important employee actions, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to be accountable. That’s why habits are so powerful. Once actions become habits, the probability that employees will stay accountable for these actions increases dramatically.
You may be thinking you want to hold employees accountable for one-off assignments, like landing a specific client or completing a custom report.
It’s true, you’ll never turn “closing the deal with Gigamegacorp” into a habit. But what gets you to a closed deal? It’s the good sales practices that you need to land any customer.
When every employee makes a habit of the fundamentals of good business, they are more likely to succeed with specific goals.
Key 2: Trust
Contrary to popular belief, accountability is about trusting others, not mistrusting them. When you ask people to take on a responsibility, you’re trusting them to do it. And they follow through in response.
Don’t assume your team trusts you. According to research published in the Harvard Business review, “Fully 47% of respondents worked in organizations where trust was below average.”
Build trust between you and your team by
- Giving people autonomy wherever possible.
- Always treating them with respect.
- Soliciting bottom-up ideas and participation.
- Encouraging peer accountability.
- Openly explaining the goals and motivations of leadership.
- Setting the example of accountability for others.
Here’s a trust-building strategy that works well for accountability:
Ask employees to tell you what they will be accountable for. They’re more likely to follow through when it’s their choice. And by giving them the opportunity to build trust with you, you are building trust with them.
Key 3: Communicate Communicate, Communicate
Open and honest communication is crucial to a culture of accountability, but communication, like voting, needs to happen early and often. Use every channel you have: email, memos, posters, team meetings, puppet shows . . . In other words, never shut up.
Here’s what to talk about:
- Specific priority-aligned actions (Write these down.)
- The positive benefits of accountability
- Reasons for your priorities
- How employee actions make a difference
- Feedback on progress
- Public recognition of good results
Remember to keep your team in the communication loop:
- Solicit questions and feedback.
- Listen attentively to challenges.
- Treat everyone with respect.
- Get agreement that employees are willing to hold themselves accountable to specific actions.
- Discuss solutions when problems pop up.
But What About … ?
You may be thinking of reasons why good habits, trust, and communications won’t solve all your problems, and you’re right. A culture of accountability doesn’t mean you can turn your office into a pillow fort.
But when new problems pop up, companies that have made their best practices second nature and trust each other to come through have two advantages:
- a proven process for tackling the problem
- the time and energy to do so because the fundamentals are solid
Plus, if you can trust your team to do their best for you every day, wouldn’t running a business be a lot more fun?