Workplace Accountability

Workplace Accountability: Strengthen Your Organization with these Tactics

How do we hold people accountable? 

This is the overarching question that most organizations struggle with. A lack of workplace accountability is typically the result of tolerated behaviors that become an organization’s culture.

On the podcast, we’ve been talking about strategic planning, nailing your positioning, and effectively communicating with your team. Accountability is the next step because once you’ve done the planning, it’s all about putting that plan into action.

Most executives are fairly good at the action part: driving the results with the organization is what they’ve been trained to do their entire career. However, it’s important to consider the quality of those results because that’s where there’s room for improvement. 

A couple of really big indicators in an organization suffering from workplace accountability issues are low employee engagement, poor performance results, and turnover in top talent. There’s an overall dissatisfaction, either about the work, or the work environment, or both. That doesn’t mean it’s everyone, and it doesn’t mean that it’s all the time, but it’s a significant number of people to impact the business negatively. 

What is Workplace Accountability?

It’s used as a giant catch-all word. So let’s identify what we really want. 

If you can’t do accountability, you can’t manage, let alone lead. Workplace accountability is often used in the corporate environment to describe whatever is missing, or what’s needed. You might hear:

“If we had more accountability from the IT team, this project would be further along.”

Everybody points to accountability. Everyone usually agrees with these statements, but they don’t take time to understand what that means or come up with a meaningful and consistent plan to address it as well as sustain it.

Unfortunately, what is usually behind the request or demand for accountability is results, fast. It’s often used as a threat. When used this way, accountability becomes the stick to punish, as opposed to a useful tool to guide and protect everyone on the team. Holding someone accountable is not a punishment. Accountability is not punitive.

Accountability is an act of clarity. It’s only outcome is clarity around ownership of either actions or inactions and the associated choices behind those actions or inactions. This is why we want accountability; we want the clarity of ownership of responsibility.

However this also means we have a firm grip on idea and use of consequences because they’re inextricably linked. Without them, there is no workplace accountability.

Indicators of Low Workplace Accountability

What does employee engagement have to say about accountability? 

Here’s an example:

On your team, there’s one employee who consistently shows up without getting the work done that they commit to between meetings. So the rest of the team pitches in to get things done. After some frantic make-up work, the job is completed and everybody can move forward. Maybe the first time it’s okay and everybody’s happy because it’s done. But, if it happens time and time again, the team starts to get disappointed, probably annoyed. Still, the team might not make any changes, and they continue to move through it. 

Then, the third, fourth, and fifth time it happens, no one ever says anything and that person gets used to their new role and a new set of (much lower) expectations. They’re not being held accountable. There are no crucial conversations going on and everybody else has to shore up. 

The longer it goes on, the more disengaged and disgruntled the other team members become. At this point, the water-cooler talk starts to happen, but nobody’s going to talk to them directly. This is now escalating from what was just a solvable problem into a team conflict. What could’ve been treated and prevented by a single crucial conversation has probably evolved into a situation that requires added conflict resolution.

The other indicator is poor performance results. We know that performance numbers happen over time (it’s a cumulative variety of performance pieces) but without workplace accountability along the way, the results aren’t great. They’re not going to change or grow.

People are engaged when they have a clear line of sight to what they’re doing and how that affects the strategy. When there’s no link there for them to see that, and to be aware of what they’re accountable for, no accountability will equal. No positive results. 

Unfortunately, this is the kind of behavior (avoidance, or work arounds) that happens all the time. Lack of accountability is in every business, in every country, we’ve all experienced it somewhere.

What Makes Workplace Accountability Hard?

Why is it seemingly effortless for some people and incredibly difficult for others? 

First and foremost, many managers are promoted to leadership roles because they’re really good at their job. In other words, they are functionally great, but being good at finance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good leader. Holding people accountable is both a management and a leadership skill, and organizations need to get better at skill-shaping their leaders so they can execute these skills brilliantly. Sometimes, managers are better at accountability than company leaders. Leaders can get mired in organizational politics and “play nice” instead of holding a clear expectation.

Another reason accountability can be difficult is people want to be liked and with that comes the fear of breaking relationships or good dynamics. It can really feel awkward to hold people accountable unless you have the skills in your toolbox to do it well. We used the term crucial conversation before, but without the know-how to start these pivotal, performance-changing conversations (intentional, direct conversations that address a current problem while also preventing future issues), or how to make them constructive and meaningful, communication efforts won’t go anywhere. You feel like you’re having the same conversations over and over again.

Unfortunately, this desire to be liked and the resulting tendency to avoid problems, creates greater tension ultimately increasing the inevitability of conflict. Conflict is much more time intensive and difficult than accountability. Yet, so many of us continue to let what starts as a performance problem, morph into a hot mess of a conflict.

Finally, the last reason we’ll cover here is that accountability can be set as a low priority, and in an organization, limited time and energy is the last nail in the coffin. Having tough conversations initially takes time. It takes time to prepare, to schedule, to talk, and to follow-up, among other things. But that’s true only until you’ve mastered the skills. It requires dedication to the process, creativity and flexibility, and more than anything else, time. However, time spent is ultimately time saved as accountability conversations will give you your time back over time as you get better and more consistent at doing it.

Assumptions and Expectations in Accountability

It’s easy to make assumptions. When we start putting expectations out there, we assume that someone already knows something that maybe they don’t actually know. Maybe we think that they already know how to do the job, or we’re sure we talked to them about a project, or we thought they were previously trained because we sent them on a one-day training session six months ago. Assuming employees have clear expectations often leads us to the need and the essence of workplace accountability.

Accountability is both a personal value and a professional skill. In other words, accountability is a skillset and a mindset. It’s just as much a philosophical approach as it is an actual practice in the workplace.

When you move into that management role, there’s a value shift, and accountability is part of that.

When we talk about the primary drivers of workplace performance, there are two pieces: beliefs and values. A belief is something that we hold to be true, while a value is what we hold to be important. So when we say that accountability is a personal value, that means that you believe it’s important and consistently act on that. Until you find that it’s important, you’re not going to be able to use it effectively. A lot of the time we choose our fear over our value. 

Accountability doesn’t happen in an emotionless vacuum. Accountability requires vulnerability, it asks for courage because it’s rooted in our beliefs and values. Accountability conversation are often done poorly. They can be awkward, blunt, and sometimes painful. This is why accountability in some organizations leads to discord and conflict management. 

When done correctly, accountability is full-on empowering, letting everyone know where the lines are and if you’ve never really been held accountable, you may not realize the impact that has.

Keys to Accountability

Accountability is a skillset and a mindset. At the highest level, accountability is three things. 

First, it’s emotional risk, so people put it off, completely avoid it, and simply don’t do it well. Second, it’s a communication skill set. You must combine all of your skills. 

  • How good are you at really understanding your issue, and being clear? 
  • How good are you listening? 
  • Are you able to have these critical conversations when you’re at a crossroads?

Lastly, accountability is a practice. Take yoga, for example. Some days you’re really good and super flexible. Other days, not so much. Not every accountability conversation is going to be great, but the more you do it, the better you are.

Start with the communication skills. It’s more than just delivering useful feedback. Then actually practice these. Get a coach to help you. That can be a professional coach or a peer coach. Check your intention. If your intention is not clarity, support and change, then you’re doing it wrong.

That’s what OT, Kung Fu is all about! Better techniques practiced over time.

To get started, check out our flagship program Own Up!™. Go to our website and take the Accountability Assessment. Then download the information and schedule a time to meet with an experienced accountability skills coach. 

To learn more, you can also visit Management Possible and Satori Consulting.

Jennifer Long and Sandi Verrecchia are the podcast hosts of Organizational Transformation Kung Fu. As Leadership Coaches they believe that transformation takes time, energy and practice to take root and become embedded as successful change within organizations. Much like the ancient art and practice of Kung Fu, transformation is a discipline. 

Jen is the owner of Management Possible® focused on training and coaching multi-level management and leadership individuals and teams nationally and globally. Sandi is the owner of Satori®  Consulting inc. a global consulting firm focused on helping organizations solve complex problems in strategy, leadership and governance.