All Articles Leadership Management Getting employees to take accountability

Getting employees to take accountability

5 min read


Accountability became a management fad in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, in most organizations, accountability has become a hollow and empty slogan that evokes cynicism and sarcasm. People often wave the “A” word around when they want others to get things done or, more commonly, when they are frustrated with others for not getting things done.

The intention behind the concept of accountability has always been to create an environment that allows people to be clear and honest about what they will deliver, rise above challenging circumstances to overcome obstacles, and substitute excuses with relentless action that achieves great results.

Unfortunately, in most organizations, people turned accountability into something unattractive and disempowering. In most companies, when people say: “They need to take accountability!” they often mean: “They need to deliver or bear the consequences.” And, by “bear the consequences” they usually mean “be punished” or, more specifically, “be fired.”

In fact in many organizations, accountability is referred to as “single throat to choke.” Would you be excited to volunteer to be that throat?

Webster’s doesn’t help, either. Its definition of accountability is: “Liability to be called on to render an account; the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected.”

Accountability was meant to represent a positive, empowering and productive space, encouraging people at all levels to believe in the cause, feel personally compelled to go out of their way to drive results and behave as if they are the owners of the business.

Accountability comes from the phrase “You can count on me.” That statement is a self-proclamation. It stems from and evokes the sentiments of privilege and opportunity, not obligation and/or liability.

However, when people view accountability as a burden or a liability, it provokes fear. When fearful people play it safe, they don’t speak up, they don’t take risks and they protect themselves. When things go wrong they are quick to excuse themselves and blame others.

So, how do you create an environment of authentic and effective accountability? Here are five practical things you can start doing tomorrow:

  1. Engage people early on in setting the goals. In a small team, it is easy to engage people in the strategy or goal-setting exercise. In a large organization, this principle has to be implemented in steps. First: get the senior team engaged and aligned. Second: bring the middle managers on board. And third: update and engage the rest of the team. Help people feel engaged in setting the goals and they will feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.
  1. Promote a culture of authentic and courageous communication. When people feel they can speak their mind, especially about what is not working, they naturally feel and behave like loyal owners of the business. People will only speak up if they believe their leaders genuinely want that. So, demonstrate that you are open to honest dialogue, including feedback and criticism about yourself.
  1. Instill the language of accountability. In an environment of compliance, people tend to indulge in excuses, complaints, blaming others and negative conversations. The language of accountability is all about clarity and action. Promote a culture where people make clear requests and promises and others respond with acceptances, declines or counter-offers. This will foster transparency and integrity versus lip service.
  1. Deal with failures in an empowering way. In most organizations, when there is failure, people tend to look for someone or something to blame. People react to that by hiding, protecting their behinds, even lying. As a result, teams often don’t get to the root cause of their failures, so they repeat them. Instead, ask your team questions like: “What was missing?” “What got in our way?” “What can we learn from this?” and “What can we change, correct and improve?” People will want to contribute in order to create breakthroughs. This will strengthen their sense of ownership and accountability.
  1. Highlight and recognize displays of accountability. People respond extremely well to genuine recognition. However, most leaders don’t do a great job — formally or spontaneously — recognizing their team members for a job well done. Recognition makes people feel noticed, appreciated and valued. This causes them to want to contribute even more. Go out of your way, as a daily practice, to recognize small, medium or large displays of ownership and accountability.

Any strategy or plan is only as good as people’s relationship with it. When you create a genuine environment of accountability it compels people at all levels to establish a powerful relationship to their company or team’s strategy or plan.

In the words of Margaret Mead: “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Gershon Mader is founder and president of Quantum Performance, a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations. He is an expert on transformational leadership, strategic commitment, mergers, acquisitions, getting employees aligned for change, as well as the co-author of “The Power of Strategic Commitment,”best-seller covering his work with over 60,000 people.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.