As a leader, we like to think that we are good at holding employees accountable, and work hard to have a team that is highly accountable for their individual and collective results. In fact, accountability is a common buzz word when talking about organizational health and employee engagement. The theory is that employees who are accountable for their work are also more likely to be engaged in their organization, and less likely to leave.
But, the reality is that most leaders aren’t comfortable holding their team members accountable for results and behaviors. Holding a team member accountable can be an uncomfortable proposition, and many fear the potential for confrontation and the impact it might have on the relationship. Also, many have never had training on how to have a difficult conversation when things aren’t going well and, instead, just let things slide in hopes the behaviors will either go away or resolve themselves.
But, our team members expect us to hold them accountable, and even more importantly, set expectations for their performance. According to Gallup’s research with companies across the world, less than half of all employees indicate they know what’s expected of them in their work! The surveys tell us that employees come to work and are constantly trying to decipher and figure out what their managers want them to do. Frustrating for the leader, and even more frustrating for the team member!
Gallup found that those organizations who have a more highly-engaged workforce have employees knew clearly what was expected of them, and their leaders held them accountable to those expectations and outcomes. In their research, they found that holding the employee accountable for their assignments and actions had a high correlation to their engagement at work.
The research showed that when an team member indicated ‘strongly agree’ to the question of whether their manager held them accountable for their performance, 28% were engaged, compared to only 6% for those who said they disagreed. In other words, if you assign them work and set expectations, but don’t follow up and hold them accountable, you are almost assured of having them become disengaged.
Holding the team member accountable for the quality of their work isn’t the only thing you need to do though. Not only do you have to hold the team member accountable for their outcomes, but you have to hold them accountable to the rest of the organizations rules, norms and expected behaviors. The old saying that “what you permit, you promote” holds true in this case. If you don’t, you are effectively condoning the action, and dooming yourself to having to deal with it later.
As a leader, it’s imperative that you are clear with what you will, and will not, enforce. It can’t be dependent on the situation or the person. It can’t be allowed one time, and not another. Without a clear indication of what is, and isn’t acceptable, team members are demoralized and can feel frustrated with the lack of consistency. They see leaders being inconsistent, and quickly grow to distrust them.
Accountability is important for another reason as well. Without it, an organization’s culture can be negatively influenced and cause an employee to blur the lines between right and wrong, ethical and unethical. General Motors takes accountability so seriously, that they talk about it as a key part of their corporate culture. Accountability is just that important.
But, accountability is a two way street. As a leader, you have to be accountable for your actions as well. You have to own the results of your decisions and the outcomes without blaming, deflecting or passing the buck. A good leader knows that not only do they need to be accountable to the organization, they need to be accountable to the teams they lead as well. The employees expect it, and can see it a mile away when a leader starts to try and avoid accountability.
It’s just this type of behavior that got General Electric into trouble back in the 1950s. They became the target of a anti-trust lawsuit filed by the Federal Government, and the ultimate cause was a lack of accountability from the most senior levels of the organization.
Apparently, GE used to have two types of policies. Those that they enforced, and others that they didn’t. In other words, there were ‘official’ policies that were taken seriously, and others that were just implied or suggested. However, it was this behavior that came to light when GE was accused of price fixing with Westinghouse on electrical equipment. Officials from both companies would meet secretly to discuss prices and determine bids for government projects, to include projects for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This ‘price fixing’ came to light when the TVA started noticing bids from GE, Westinghouse and other vendors all coming in at the same price.
However, when the case went to trial, many of the senior executives tried to blame the issue on simple misunderstandings of their intent to junior leaders. The teams misunderstood, according to the executives, when they were meant to follow a policy, and when they shouldn’t.
It seems that the way a team member was supposed to know the difference had to do with whether or not the executive smiled and winked at them or not. If they told the employee to do something with a serious face, then it was assumed to be an ‘official’ policy or directive, and the employee was to carry it out. However, if the executive smiled and winked at the employee when they told them what to do, it was an ‘implied’ policy, and the employee was expected to do the opposite of what they were being told.
In this case, you can clearly see that the senior leadership didn’t hold themselves accountable, and subsequently, neither did the team members who carried out the ‘orders’ to fix prices.
So, how can you improve the accountability of your organization and improve the overall engagement of your team?
- Be explicit in policies and procedures – I once worked for an organization that didn’t believe in having policies. The logic was that the more policies you had, the more you had to enforce. In that organization, being flexible in who and how behaviors were enforced was valued. However, this doesn’t work in most organizations, and you need to have clear, and attainable policies. There should be no room for interpretation or argument about intent.
- Follow through with team members on violations (every time!) – The worst thing you can do as a leader is inconsistently enforce policies and hold people accountable for their work and behaviors in contradictory ways. This sends a bad message, and essentially condones the behaviors.
- Put things in writing – When establishing goals and priorities for your team members, make sure that you write it down and get agreement to what you discussed. While it seems like just having a conversation should be enough, that leaves too much to interpretation and miscommunication is a given. People often hear messages differently, and without putting things in writing, you risk the chance you have to reexplain your intent, or backtrack on holding them accountable if they misunderstood.
- Be vulnerable – As a leader, you want to be the role model of accountability. You likely work hard to follow policies, meet your obligations and responsibilities, and be a good example to your team. But, if you’re human, you will make mistakes. Confront your mistakes quickly, and be open and transparent when you do. Your team likely knows you made the mistake right after you did anyway, so trying to avoid it, or covering it up, only perpetuates an organization that is accountability focused.
- Learn how to have difficult conversations – If you are uncomfortable with having difficult conversations with your team, it’s imperative you learn how to improve quickly. It’s more common than you might think, and learning some good techniques to help you overcome the fear are a huge help. One great class is “Crucial Conversations” by VitalSmarts. It’s a fantastic course, and not only teaches some great techniques, but also lets you practice in a safe environment before you have a real crucial conversation. They also have a follow on book and program called “Crucial Accountability.” Definitely worth checking out.
As a leader, there are a lot of expectations on you. But none is as visible, or important, than being able to hold your team and organization accountable. Without accountability, all you have is a group of people being paid, and you hoping they will do what they say! Don’t let your organization pay the price for a lack of accountability. Having the difficult conversations and holding people accountable for their actions is when a true leader shines.
What other suggestions do you have to help improve your organization’s accountability?