An organization functions best when its members hold themselves and each other responsible for their results. When employees trust each other and their organizational leaders to be accountable for agreed upon tasks and outcomes, they are more likely to perform at or near their full capacity.
Of course, employees must be empowered with the resources and clarity they need to succeed. Once those conditions are met, in combination with a culture of accountability, they have every opportunity to produce positive outcomes. Indeed, standards of performance are much higher in trust-infused, positive cultures.
The Accountability-Engagement Connection
Why is accountability such a powerful force for employee engagement? Primarily because it increases the consistency and predictability of the workplace experience. When leaders and staff are more accountable, it means that workplace variables such as deadlines, behavioral norms, expectations, and product or service quality match expectations. Surprises and blindsides are less likely, which creates a workplace environment that feels safer and more trustworthy. Employee performance increases when they can trust that everyone else is making a similar effort contributing to team success.
Many organizations veer off course by framing accountability as a punitive and fear-based tool. The human brain performs predictably when prompted by fear; neurological resources switch from a focus on the task at hand to defensiveness. Everything from innovation, mental focus and IQ plummets as their metabolic fuel is transferred to hardwired systems dedicated to threat response. Holding employees responsible for reaching goals should be a fear-free roadmap to success, not a cudgel.
The Opportunity for Leaders
Failure to hold employees accountable corrodes the relationship between a manager and their direct reports. It suggests that the manager is ineffective, inconsistent, and even untrustworthy. It can also undermine trust among high performers who are meeting their goals as their frustration (and workload) escalates to the point where they want to stop striving or quit.
Overcoming Barriers to Accountability
Even in a high-performing culture, there will be employees who might struggle with accountability. I go into detail about them in my book, but the three most common are learned helplessness, a victim mentality, and grudge collecting. Leaders can tackle each one of these mentalities through the consistent, predictable demonstration of non-punitive principles. Doing so will instill higher levels of productivity and discretionary effort from their employees.
Open, honest, and supportive communication is a great place to start. Leaders need to be proactive, solution-focused, and encourage self-awareness in their team members. These conversations should avoid blaming, and threats of punishment.
- Create a system of accountability that is consistently used throughout the organization.
- Conduct exit interviews with staff that resign to determine whether a lack of consistent accountability (performance standards) may be a factor.
- Recognize the individual and organizational barriers to accountability.
- Address individual barriers by working in a compassionate way with employees.