6 Steps to Effective Accountability

“Hold them accountable for their performance!” This is an often repeated and seldom understood mantra in today’s workplace. Accountability is a critical aspect of the very best organizations, but there is a significant distinction in the way the best approach it. First and foremost, the very best do not equate accountability with punishment. But if accountability is not just punishment, then what is it?

Accountability can be viewed as a 6-step process which, if applied correctly, will create an environment where people will willingly receive feedback and see the process as constructive.

1. Set clear expectations

Never expect results that you haven’t clearly communicated to your employees. If you expect them to perform in a certain manner, you must first communicate that expectation to them. Keep in mind that almost every employee wants to please the boss and experience both organizational and personal success. They can’t do this if they don’t know what is expected of them.

2. Compare results to expectations

When possible, quantitative metrics should be in place for every desired result. These metrics should assess the relationship between the actual result and the result that was expected. If the metric shows success then positive feedback is in order. If, however, the metric indicates a gap, or failure, then move to step #3 with intentional curiosity as to why the gap exists.

3. Account for the “why” behind failure to meet expectations (Don’t assume poor motivation)

I once had a young engineer who was just starting his career ask for the best tip I could give him as a future manager. I told him that he must be curious and a great diagnostician. Human failure is seldom the cause of anything, rather it is almost always the result of something. If you have found a gap between expectations and performance, you should work with the employee to find out what caused it. The vast majority of the time we find out it is something within the work system that caused the gap to occur and not that “they just didn’t care or work hard enough”. Remember that humans work in incredibly complex and dynamic systems and often the consequence of that complexity is human failure. Examine the context (Self; Others; Surroundings; Systems) that the person was in and which aspects of that context impacted performance. Don’t start by assuming that personal motivation is the cause. If you do, you will most likely create defensiveness and fail to find the “real” cause behind the failure. Objectively evaluate all possibilities before finalizing your conclusion. Remember, accountability literally means to “take an account” of what caused the failure.

4. Find a fix so that the person can be successful in the future

Once you have diagnosed the cause of the failure, put a fix into place to eliminate the cause. This could be training or mentoring if knowledge or skill is missing, new equipment if failure is the result of not having the correct resources for success, contractual changes with your clients if there is incentive to rush or take short cuts, or a multitude of other fixes. Just remember that the fix should affect the cause of the actual gap, not just punish the person who failed. If progressive discipline (punishment) is in order, move to step #5.

5. Apply negative consequences appropriately

Yes, sometimes punishment (progressive discipline) is in order, but it should only be used when trying to impact motivation or to document repeated failure. Helping the person understand the consequences of continued failure or the impact that failure is having on how he is perceived by you and/or his team members can have a significant impact of motivation. Keep in mind that the primary objective of any progressive discipline program is performance improvement. So whether you are conducting an informal counseling session or discussing a written reprimand, care should be taken to communicate clearly and respectfully, with a focus on determining the real cause of failure.

6. Model by holding yourself accountable for your results

Employees are impacted more by what they see their supervisors do than by what their supervisors say should be done. If you want your employees to respond positively to being held accountable then you must be open to feedback from your employees and publicly admit and diagnose your own performance gaps. This shows that accountability is not something that should be feared and it also provides the opportunity to make bosses, employees, and the organization more successful.

While these steps are important, the way you communicate is also critical. Make sure you do so with respect and with the person’s best interest in mind. If you can minimize or eliminate defensiveness, you will be well on the road to helping others improve and get the results that you both want.