One of the most common questions leaders ask is how to be effective in holding employees accountable. The primary role of a people leader is developing and growing employees to fulfill their potential. A sure sign of a great leader is that many of their employees grow into leaders in their own right. And a large part of providing growth opportunities for employees is creating a culture of accountability.
What is accountability in the workplace?
Accountability for employees means that they must manage their own tasks and job duties in expected timeframes at expected performance levels, following through on commitments, taking ownership of mistakes, and exhibiting the values of the culture in their interactions and communications.
Holding employees accountable in the right way will set the tone for a productive, efficient, and growth-minded work environment. An accountable workplace culture is one where mistakes and failures are acknowledged sooner rather than later in a constructive way, contributing to learning and development.
Why is it important to hold employees accountable?
Accountability is critical to developing and maintaining high-performing teams and cultures. It leads to improved work standards, performance, trust, and it increases employee confidence in leadership.
If you don’t hold employees accountable for their performance and/or behaviors, other members of the team and company see this. It may communicate that the poor performance or undesirable behavior is acceptable if the employee isn’t held accountable, and will eventually erode morale and employee engagement as others see they too can get away with poor performance and low engagement.
Tips for holding employees accountable
1. Hold yourself accountable – It’s very difficult to hold someone else accountable if we aren’t accountable ourselves. As a leader, you are being watched and listened to 24/7, and not just by your direct reports. Your team is a reflection of you and your management style and you set the tone and pace as leader. So, make sure you complete your tasks within expected timeframes and follow through on commitments, for example by showing up on time and well-prepared. By living the expected values and behaviors of the company, you set a valuable example that others will follow.
2. Set clear expectations – Most leaders think they’re being clear with their direct reports about expectations, but they are often not as clear as they think. When an employee is not performing as expected, it’s because they weren’t clear what was expected of them. It’s very hard to hold someone accountable if they don’t know what is expected and what success looks like. Focus on being clear by putting the “target” goals for the employee in writing. Target goals need to be actionable, observable, and measurable. The second part of setting clear expectations for employees is providing detailed information about what the “process” goals are. Process goals are the actions, behaviors, and frequency of the actions and behaviors that lead to achieving the target goals. Put this information in writing and discuss the expectations with the employee to confirm they are clear about what’s expected. This process and conversation will also need to confirm the employee has the needed tools and resources to achieve the goals.
3. Address issues promptly – Provide data and real examples of the issue/s you’re addressing with the employee. The timing of this crucial conversation is very important. Here’s an article I wrote on crucial conversations that provides more insights into how to handle these conversations. One important consideration is that you should not try to solve the issue for them, because it is essentially up to the employee to make adjustments on their end. But be empathic, be constructive, and identify related measurables and goals to track if things are moving in the right direction. Then, be sure to communicate clearly what the consequences are for not meeting the discussed expectations, along with the next steps to focus on the needed corrections. Set up recurring follow-up meetings at least monthly to check in and to provide feedback, coaching, and encouragement. If expectations aren’t being met, you will want to address that with the employee sooner rather than later.
4. Provide consistent feedback – Going forward, as you see the expectations being met, acknowledge the accomplishments and thank the employee. Use the follow-up meetings outlined in the previous step as an opportunity to reward the behavior and outcomes you want repeated, so the employee will know you appreciate them. Reward doesn’t necessarily mean more money; it simply means positive acknowledgement.
5. Make it a learning and growth opportunity – Try to view problems that need to be addressed with employees as learning and growth opportunities. Try to really understand what caused the unwanted behavior, action, or unmet performance expectation. Identify and discuss the necessary changes and how you and the organization will support the employee in this process. I kind of equate these accountability conversations to the “tough love” conversations we might have as parents. Help the employee see that you’re coming from a perspective of helping them grow and develop so they can go to the next level, whatever that next level is. I’ve learned over 30 years as a people leader that the best way to get an employee to do what you need them to do is to care about what they care about. Focus on their growth and development rather than making the accountability conversation seem like a reprimand or implying that they aren’t competent and/or don’t care.