How Can I Convince Employees to be Accountable?

by Sam on September 12, 2010

Our lives begin to end the moment we are silent about the things that matter. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

One-Minute Answer: The absence of accountability is a virulent corporate epidemic.

A short time a ago I sat with a team of executives who like most other teams I’ve worked with need help in getting the layers of managers and hourly employees beneath them to act more responsibly. They crave a more serious approach to continuous improvement. They want employees who’ll admit to their mistakes and correct them rather than cover them up. They desire people who are answerable for the outcomes of their performance. They yearn for “the good old days when the people you hired gave a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.”

So why this problem? Have corporate leaders turned into wimps who are afraid to insist on required performance standards? Do employees take jobs today with less of an internal drive for excellence than their parents? Are today’s workers less committed to the company that employs them? Does the culture in which we live place reduced value on hard work?

I believe the answer to all four questions is YES!—with exceptions that we are fortunate to encounter!

Back to the team of executives. I prepared for them an accountability manual that’s available to my clients for use in scheduled meetings with their people. It incorporates several of the ideas just ahead.

Five-Minute Answer: You’ll need to apply techniques such as those below for employees who won’t hold themselves accountable without “encouragement”.

  1. W.Y.A.T. If you fail to walk your accountability talk, few of the remaining prescriptions will win employees over. Are you as critical of your own work as you require your people to be of theirs? Do you strive as mightily for excellence as you expect them to? Don’t be too quick to say, “Of course I do!” Ask someone you trust about how you’re perceived.
  2. Unmistakable purpose. Robert Byrne said, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” The more that you can infuse your people’s work with meaning the more they’ll feel ownership of that work. One way to do this is to connect them more closely to customers and therefore to the end result of their performance. Another possibility is to paint a picture for them of a new tomorrow—better than today—that will excite them and earn their dedication. And if you can give them greater say and increased responsibility for their jobs, they will take charge of themselves as never before.
  3. Unmistakable core values. Core values that you define for your company or your team can increase responsibility among team members, particularly if you do three things. One, be certain that team members see you, the leader, living those core values to the full. Two, sit down with your team from time to time to give each other feedback on how well the core values are being lived out on the team. Three, name one of your core values “accountability” or “responsibility”.
  4. Unmistakable targets. Do your people know exactly what the required outcomes (sales, market share, profit, customer satisfaction, cost savings) are for the organization and the team? Many companies gain from “open book management”, which is the intentional sharing of all financial records including profit and loss statements with employees.
  5. Unmistakable transformations. Are your people aware of the 30,000 foot improvements that the organization has committed to in order to hit the selected targets? These transformations are sometimes called “strategic goals”. Equip others to help you hit or even exceed those targets by describing those transformations.
  6. Individual employee goal setting. Once the transformations have been determined, employees benefit from more than mere knowledge of them. Those high-level priorities need to be cascaded down through the organization and ultimately onto the desktop of each individual contributor. The first level of greater specification would be to departments or divisions. The next level of even greater specification would be to teams or projects. Finally, they’ll show up on the goal statements of employees in the form of the detailed and distinct actions they need to take and objectives they need to achieve in order for the collective labor of all departments, teams, and individuals to result in fully achieved targets.
  7. Formative monitoring and summative consequences. All employees should sit with their supervisors at least once a quarter to review progress on their goals. Out of these meetings may come praise for forward movement, criticism for a lack of headway, or new or revised goals. Then, at the end of the year, or otherwise determined period, an assessment of overall goal achievement results in positive or negative consequences, as appropriate, for the person whose work is evaluated.
  8. Rules of the road. The four preceding points focus on how well employees contribute to getting good product out the door. An equally important measure of their value is whether they can achieve productivity goals in a way that supports you and other members of the team. In other words, do they fulfill your behavioral expectations? Ensure success in this arena. Make these expectations abundantly clear. Publish your specific requirements for their behavior arrayed along your organization’s core values. So, for example, if one of your core values is accountability, what are the handful of behaviors that demonstrate adherence to this value?
  9. Abundant feedback. Just as you criticize and praise achievement of employee goals when you review goal forms, so should you provide feedback on how well your expectations are met. One difference in your response to behavior is that it should be immediate in most cases and not reserved for the next quarterly meeting.
  10. Future-directed performance reviews. An overwhelming majority of performance reviews fail to contribute to accountability due to the direction of their focus. They principally serve to give employees a report of how they did in the past (over the last year). If your performance management system is thus guilty, fix it. Rather than stress how employees did, point to what they need to do to get better, and build in check points to verify and celebrate their improvements.
  11. Performance improvement plans. National studies reveal that somewhere between 15 and 20% of the workforce is actively disengaged from their jobs. Rather than helping you dig dirt out of the hole, they’re throwing it back in. They’re distressing their colleagues and frustrating you. It’s unthinkable that these en’er do wells are not on one of two things—either unemployment or performance improvement plans. And whenever you do require people to get better or get out, be certain to give them deadlines for improvement, clear pictures of what that improvement needs to look like, and whatever resources they need to have a reasonable chance of success.

Breakthrough! If you’ve read this far, you may have an accountability dilemma. Which one, or combination, of the strategies above will you apply to that situation? Is there someone—perhaps an accountability partner or coach—who can help to assure that you get the results you hope for? May I send the accountability manual mentioned earlier to you? It’s titled, “Consider it Done!”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dan 09.13.10 at 6:04 am

If you would like a tool to manage your small business activities and Projects, you can use this web aplication:

You can use it to manage and prioritize your Goals (for business but also in other areas of your life), Projects and Tasks. It has a Checklists section, for the routines and repetitive activities that any business has to do. Also, it features a Schedules section and a Calendar, for scheduling you time and activities.

Some features from GTD are also present, like Contexts and Next Actions.

Comes with a mobile version too, and with an Android app.

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