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How to nurture accountability with employees

4 min read


Organizations are made up of teams and individuals who execute specific tasks to drive a greater, overarching business goal. However, the link between individual actions and broader organizational goals is often unclear. Most employees, including leaders, do not realize the impact that their actions (or lack of) can have on business operations.

When key business tasks are carried out, whether on small projects or large initiatives, accountable behavior is essential. It is most significant when expressed as timely follow-through on commitments despite shifting priorities, conflicting goals and role ambiguity.

The need for accountability is clearly evident during moments that test leadership, but it can often go unnoticed when it comes to smaller, everyday activities and behaviors. If left unchecked, a lack of accountability can have a serious impact on business performance and operations. As such, spotting the signs early and addressing the issue strategically is imperative.

Some signs of insufficient or lack of accountability are:

  • Ongoing missed deliverables
  • Duplication of effort
  • Lack of ownership for the quality of work
  • Giving excuses
  • Blaming others
  • Putting off important tasks
  • Doing the minimum
  • Acting confused and playing helpless

These can all lead to missed deadlines, scapegoating, and overruns as well as severely impact productivity and business performance.

According to our 2014 Pulse Survey, only 18 percent of respondents reported the highest level of accountability in their organizations. This reveals that the vast majority of respondents feel most individuals within their organization did not take account of their actions and honor the commitments they made to others as much as they could or should.

The main reason for this lack of accountability is leaders themselves do not model accountability. In fact, according to Forum’s survey, less than half of leaders were seen as behaving in a way that promotes accountability in their people. They were unable to keep their promises, model responsibility, ensure clear goals and even provide necessary resources and abilities.

Key behaviors that demonstrate a leader’s personal commitment to accountability and encourage peers to also take more responsibility for their actions are:

  • Setting clear standards and expectations with teams around what accountability is and the importance it has on achieving and meeting goals/expectations;
  • Defining who is accountable for successfully completing assignments and achieving objectives;
  • Being open to feedback and problem-solving without placing blame when deadlines, tasks or deliverables are missed;
  • Teaching and demonstrating how to address people when they do not keep commitments and providing guidance on how to interact when holding one another accountable;
  • Applying appropriate consequences to team members who are regularly not able to meet established standards; and
  • Empowering others to hold each other accountable by establishing standards, provided training and role modelling.

While role modeling is a key behavior of high-performing leaders that influences accountability among teams, these leaders have to be careful that accountability is not seen solely as a disciplinary action. In such cases, accountability can become an overemphasis on the need to hold the workforce to account when it does not uphold its commitment. Instead, leaders can influence accountability by highlighting and celebrating achievements and giving positive examples during regular employee and team interactions so peers can learn from real experiences.

By applying these practices, leaders and their teams can establish internal and external contracts, clarify the conditions that are needed to fulfill them, and provide a process of giving and receiving feedback to keep commitments on track, which can then provide a foundation for further measurement.

For example, your organization is asked to roll out a program that came from the corporate office in Europe. Taking accountability means that instead of implementing it exactly as is, you localize the program, ensure that its spirit remains intact, and intended results are achieved and will go a long way. This way, you are not just ticking off boxes on a checklist — you also feel ownership in the actions taken to make the program work.

Improving personal accountability is a vital step in increasing employee engagement, which in turn boosts productivity, as individuals are more inclined to honor the commitments they make to others and are energized to put in extra effort. If an organization’s workforce and leaders are aware of their responsibilities, enthusiastic about reaching individual and shared goals, and meet expectations, overall organizational performance will improve.

At the end of the day, smaller, personal commitments count the most, as it drives employees to be responsible for their actions, engage in their work and effectively contribute to the bigger picture.

Russ Becker is the president of The Forum Corporation.

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