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Accountability Leadership - Manage and Teach Accountability at Work

team accountability
Accountability is necessary when leading a team

Former American football coach Lou Holtz once said, “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it.” It’s understandable why the term accountability has such an ominous sound to it. It implies blame, shame, and atonement. However, that doesn’t account for the other qualities it inspires, such as responsibility, ownership, and wisdom.

Any organization can benefit from nurturing these traits in their staff. It is vital to the corporate culture, employee retention, and even a company’s bottom line. Best-selling author Steve Maraboli likens accountability as a valuable lesson. Perhaps that’s where we should begin by defining accountability in the workplace and its essential role.

Defining Accountability

Dictionary.com defines the term as “the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.” It’s not hard to imagine the negative cloud hovering over it. Our first instinct is to shy away from it. However, accountability can denote positive things, too. Think of all the sometimes edgy NFL Superbowl commercials that went viral. It won’t be the worse thing to have created the Budweiser ads.

Accountability means stepping up to the plate to justify your actions for both bad and good. The challenge is making it a positive force for change. It can provide some worthwhile rewards for the organization that embraces this concept.

Benefits of Accountability at Work

Employers and employees can benefit by prioritizing accountability leadership. Team members can realize better work satisfaction with the clear expectations it brings. That can, in turn, improve engagement. According to the 2021 Gallup State of the Workplace Report, only 33 percent of employees are engaged. They are also less like to stay with an organization. Therefore, it pays to boost morale.

Employers can benefit from staff who are more committed to their work. They can bring new sources of innovation and creativity to the workplace that would otherwise remain untapped. Constructive accountability can bolster performance and help reduce the costs of lost productivity and poor management. Gallup estimates it can tally up to $1.2 trillion annually.

Accountability offers profound ways to bolster employee involvement because it sets the bar. Remember that individuals want to do their best and find satisfaction with their jobs. Clear expectations are baked into the process. That fact alone can encourage your staff to take ownership of their work. The best thing about it is that it can negate the negative associations of accountability.

Misconceptions About Accountability

One of the hurdles to accountability at the workplace is that it means more work. As we’ve discussed, the opposite is true. It chips away at the wasted time and effort, along with their added costs. It’s worth noting that it’s the misdirected endeavors that add to the workload and not the task at hand, more often than not. The same thing applies to the time involved.

Of course, one of the biggest obstacles is the negativity associated with accountability. That responsibility falls back onto management and its approach to meeting deadlines or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). That makes the lessons in empathy that we learned during the pandemic so vital. Life happens, regardless of our jobs. Emotionally intelligent leaders recognize this fact.

Other areas of misconceptions about accountability involve the mindset surrounding it. An organization that looks at its proverbial glass as half empty instead of half full will foster more negativity and a reluctance to accept accountability. See where the needle is pointing in your company by asking for volunteers for a project. You won’t need a compass to see how your people view the extra responsibility.

It’s natural for people to avoid something that may have a high cost for them. Many may equate failure to meet a deadline as a threat to their job security, another source of organizational stress that employees will avoid at all costs. All these factors boil down to an individual’s perception of accountability at work.

Implementation of Accountability

Accountability in the workplace is a multi-faceted undertaking. It requires excellent communication skills, problem-solving aptitude, emotional intelligence, and a clear, well-drawn plan. It’s not just setting milestones and goals for your employees. It also involves accountability leadership since that is ultimately the reason when many things go awry.

Each individual plan is customized to each person’s strengths, shortcomings, and career goals. It includes employee feedback so that everyone has a say in their path. That’s not just about keeping your people happy. It’s also about benefiting your organization. According to Gallup, only 20 percent of workers feel they are managed to do their best work. Ultimately, that affects a company’s bottom line.

Accountability is something that leaders must implement from Day One. What’s equally sobering is that only 12 percent of employees think their companies onboard new hires well. Consider the implications of that stat. Without the knowledge or tools to perform their best, how can managers possibly expect to realize the full potential of their staff and the prospects of their organization?

Fortunately, leaders can right the ship by following a common sense approach to performance management, accountability leadership, and conflict management. Managers must be emphatic and practice active listening. Remember that your company is first people with their own issues, problems, and paths that have nothing to do with the job. Let’s get accountability on the right foot.

Clear and Focused Expectations

You may recognize much of our advice as applications of George T. Doran’s S.M.A.R.T. goals. The reason is that these criteria underscore what’s needed to make accountability work for your organization. They provide the expectations that your employees want of you while allowing your company to achieve its Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Remember that procrastination usually stems from an overwhelming task without a clear path to completion. That’s what makes S.M.A.R.T. goals so valuable. Therefore, the framework for defining your expectations is:

Specific: The goal is well-stated with a transparent purpose

Measurable: Everyone understands the OKRs and KPIs and knows what success looks like.

Achievable: The goal is realistic and aligned with an organization’s resources.

Relevant: The goal’s place with a company’s objectives and mission is evident.

Time-bound: The goal must have a reasonable timeline to keep everyone focused.

Perhaps it’s the last item that creates the most anxiety. However, it’s also an effective way to motivate your employees and give them focus with a clear definition of success. We suggest using milestones along the way to offer your team opportunities to celebrate their victories along the way. It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of that feeling of accomplishment.

Your job as a leader is to acknowledge everyone’s achievements toward meeting the goal.

Mutual Paths

Managers miss a valuable opportunity to tap into the knowledge and experience of their employees if they don’t involve them in the discussion. That includes projects, career paths, and solutions. Remember that your people are the boots on the ground. They see things from a different perspective than you do. It’s also imperative if you want to set realistic deadlines by knowing what it takes to meet them.

It can also help leaders optimize their resources and direct training in their staff’s career paths more effectively. It makes psychological safety at work critical. Employees should feel free to voice their opinions about unrealistic targets or a lack of tools needed to meet these objectives. It’s a great failure of management to set a deadline without the input of those who must do the work.

Monitor and Tweak

Of course, it’s equally essential to realize that plans are guidance and not dogma. Things change. Circumstances waiver from the path you thought they’d take. People change their minds. That’s why it’s crucial to have a Plan B or at least baking in some wiggle room to your plans. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the course a project will take until you’re on the path.

None of us are perfect, nor are we mind readers. For example, who foresaw the many headwinds manufacturers had to make during the pandemic with supply issue problems and labor shortages? Key components of accountability leadership are flexibility and problem-solving

Supportive Work Environment

It’s imperative to provide support for your people as you move together toward meeting goals and deadlines. That can take many forms, from training to mentoring to listening. Perhaps, the late American Max DePree summarized it best when he said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Managers have to wear many hats, making soft skills like conflict management so critical to accountability. It’s one thing to know how a product works. It’s another thing altogether to understand how to communicate its usefulness effectively to a potential customer. Successful leaders use critical thinking to help with problem-solving. Inevitably, issues arise often when we least expect them.

Support comes into play with other intangibles, such as empathy and employee well-being. The wise leader will recognize the signs of stress and burnout in their staff. Keep in mind the fear of failure that surrounds accountability. Part of the manager’s job is to check in frequently with their team. Ask them if they need anything. After all, the best-laid plans often need tweaking.

The Transition to Accountability

Transitioning to a new definition of workplace accountability will undoubtedly send up red flags in your staff. It can cause unnecessary anxiety about a myriad of issues, both real and imagined. Therefore, it’s essential to introduce the concept in a non-threatening manner. Tackle the misconceptions that people often have about accountability first.

Talk about workloads and time spent to accomplish goals. Be the leader who initiates a new and healthier mindset about accountability. You can begin by dismissing the notions of blame and failure. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Instead, redefine accountability as a path toward meeting goals with learning opportunities along the way as you celebrate the victories.

One of the best outcomes of workplace accountability is building trust. Your employees will realize they can rely on you and can speak freely about company issues. You will learn how to be a better leader and mentor. Today’s workplace has evolved past the traditional one where the so-called separation between the church and state exists.

It’s about people.

We suggest some training for you to help ease any anxieties your employees may have about this new focus. Delegation is a vital piece. It can make all your workers stakeholders with fairly distributed duties. Resent is the product of overworked team members. Open the doors to communication to stop it in its tracks.

Managers must also realize how vital delegation is for them. No one could—or should be expected to—do it all. It’s not a sign of weakness to relegate tasks to other employees. Instead, it’s a tangible example of trust. When you assign something to someone else, you’re saying that you believe in their ability to accomplish it. You’re empowering them to embrace accountability positively.

We also recommend checking out one of our courses on the science of human behavior. People don’t always make sense. We do and say illogical things. We may not even understand what’s motivating our actions or self-deception. It often takes a little soul searching and distance to hone the skills you need to be a more effective leader.

Final Thoughts

Accountability in the workplace doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can make your organization stronger mentally and fiscally. It also teaches you skills to take away from the job to your other relationships. Trustworthiness is an admirable trait wherever you practice it. It’s all about looking at goals and the path to meeting them differently.

Remember that a culture of accountability also sends a positive message to potential customers. Who wouldn’t want to do business with a company that values its employees to be the best they can at their jobs?

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