6 ways managers can increase team accountability

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“Without accountability, the ability to manage doesn’t exist,” is how one workforce development and business strategy expert put it.

A team’s success hinges upon accountability. And as a manager, you’re not only responsible for holding yourself accountable, you’re also responsible for creating a culture of accountability on your team. An excellent manager injects that responsibility into the DNA of their team and gets excellent outcomes as a result.

But if that’s the case, why did this Harvard Business Review report that nearly half of all managers are bad at accountability?

Well, it might be because creating accountability for others is not an easy thing to do. This is especially true when managers are focused on how they’re being perceived by their team, instead of on the outcomes their team is producing.

Read on to understand 6 ways you can increase accountability on your team.

What is accountability?

Let’s start by establishing what accountability is not: accountability is not fear. Accountability is not a reprimand. Accountability is not something that occurs once a project has been completed.

Behavioral change expert, Peter Bregman, puts it well in his HBR article on accountability: “Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. It’s not a confession. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.”

You probably know if you have an accountability problem, but if you’re not sure, here are some clear indicators that you have an issue on your hands:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Repeat mistakes
  • Variable quality in work
  • Wide range in performance on your team
  • Anxiety and lack of trust

The problem is that when managers have an accountability problem, their knee-jerk response is often to tighten their grip, becoming a micromanager in the process.

But accountability is built on a foundation of trust and support, where employees are motivated to do the right thing, and take responsibility when they do not. So, instead of turning to stress and surveillance when you’re not getting the outcomes you want, try these 6 tips to help you improve accountability on your team.

1. Establish clear expectations from the outset

A lot of accountability issues stem from failing to clearly define what success looks like up front for your team members — in fact, clarity is at the heart of accountability. Any time you are holding one of your employees accountable for something, it should be clear from the outset what the desired outcomes are, how those outcomes will be measured, and how your team member plans to achieve those outcomes.

These expectations should be reached through discussion and mutual agreement between you and your employee. They definitely don’t need to be defined exclusively by you and you alone; making sure they are the product of a conversation builds buy-in from the outset.

In Partners in Leadership’s Workplace Accountability Study, there are a couple of startling statistics that show why it is so important to establish clear expectations at the start. First, “lack of clarity around key results led 70% of survey participants to indicate that their organization’s key results were in jeopardy or altogether doomed” and second, “85% of survey participants indicated they weren’t even sure what their organizations are trying to achieve.”

When starting a project, it is important for a manager to go over in detail the expectations they have and how it plays into the larger goals of an organization. Part of this process is ensuring that there is a clear outcome that is measurable and attainable. For example, it’s not enough for a manager to tell her team that they need to increase their social media presence. A manager that holds her employees accountable will say “we need to increase our page views by 10,000 this month.”

Scheduling regular check-ins and maintaining progress reports may help keep everyone on track as well. During these check-ins, managers should remind their team what the goal of the project is, how it is tied to the overall goal of the department/company, and whether or not they are on track to hit the predetermined goal. If they are not on track, you should, as a group, review what has been impeding progress and make an actionable plan to fix it.

2. Provide the necessary resources

Similar to the first point, it is important to know from the beginning that you are setting your employees up for success. Bregman suggests asking yourself “If the person does not have what’s necessary, can they acquire what’s missing? If so, what’s the plan? If not, you’ll need to delegate to someone else. Otherwise you’re setting them up for failure.” Additionally, if they can’t acquire what is missing, can you help them acquire it?

If employees do not feel that they are set up for success, they are more likely to place blame on outside sources to explain why they were not successful rather than holding themselves accountable.

3. Foster connection

To help your team members feel accountable, connect them to the work they’re doing. Different types of connection motivate different types of employees:

  1. Connect their work to the goals of the broader company so they understand how they’re contributing to organization-wide priorities.
  2. Connect their work to their personal and professional goals. How will being successful in their current pursuit help them achieve their long-term aspirations?
  3. Connect them to the problem and to the solution. Challenge your employees to come up with their own solutions — it will help them feel more responsible for the outcome.
  4. Connect them with their team members. Promote collaboration, and make sure your employees feel seen and heard by others on the team. This will make them feel like others are invested in their success, help them understand how their work affects others, and increase their sense of accountability to the team.

4. Give feedback, even when it’s hard.

Constructive feedback has innumerable benefits in the workplace. But you may not know that constructive, actionable feedback can help increase accountability.

In order to hold themselves accountable, your employees need to know where they stand. It’s up to you, as their manager, to keep that communication transparent and frequent.

Managers can provide clear, data-driven feedback through Pathlight. You can see who is not on track to meet their goals, and course-correct directly through the platform. Once your team knows where they stand against your expectations and you have given them actionable tasks to work on, it is easy for them to see a clear path for development and success.

Feedback can — and definitely should — include positive feedback and recognition. The Association for Talent Development defines “constructive accountability” as relying upon “positive feedback in real time, fueling your workers’ motivation and boosting your company’s productivity.”

As Partners in Leadership poignantly put it: “Accountable people seek feedback … and feedback creates accountable people.”

5. Respond to different outcomes with different consequences

One critical way to hold your team accountable is to reward different outcomes with different consequences, and to do so consistently.

If your employee fails to deliver, and you realize it’s because you did not provide the clarity required at the outset, then hold yourself accountable, and (if you can), provide them with the right coaching and resources and give them another opportunity to prove themselves.

If your employee fails to deliver, and it is due to their own lack of accountability, determine the appropriate consequences, given their role. Maybe you don’t entrust them with that level of responsibility again, you determine they are unfit for a promotion, or you decide to let them go.

And finally, if your employee knocks it out of the park, make sure to recognize their performance, and reward the outcome with whatever is appropriate in your context, like public appreciation, cash prize, or a promotion.

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6. Don’t cultivate fear.

Creating a culture of fear may give you short-term results, but it will not create long-term accountability. If employees are fearful of backlash from their managers, they are less likely to reach out for help when they need it most, and far more likely to quit your team.

If you are worried your team might be fearful, the Center for Creative Leadership has a couple of tips to help combat that culture. One important one is to be sure you are acknowledging the good things that employees are doing. If you are constantly providing criticism without praising, this could get exhausting for your team. They may think that it’s not possible to please you.

Another good tip is to acknowledge your own mistakes. While doing this, explain to your team what you learned and how you plan to remedy the situation in the future. Leading by example will never go out of style. After all, the Workplace Accountability Study states that “84% of those surveyed cite the way leaders behave as the single most important factor influencing accountability in their organizations.”

Conclusion

Leadership experts in Harvard Business Review warn that when there is no accountability, managers are creating “… a culture of mediocrity and lackluster organizational performance” and that “the aggregate costs of neglecting accountability can be staggering for everyone.”

Without accountability, your team has no reason to comply with expectations. It isn’t easy to create accountability, but we hope these tips help you create a culture where your team wants to put their best foot forward and delivers the results that you expect of them.

Have you had trouble keeping your team accountable? What have you done to promote accountability? Let us know!