Accountability is often a thorny issue in the workplace, and it’s become even thornier in the hybrid and remote work era.
As some organizations and bosses scale back on guarantees of flexibility, they often cite productivity concerns as a driving force for their decision. How can the company be sure employees are staying productive? How can leaders “hold their people accountable?”
Some challenges around accountability come from a fundamental misconception of what it means. Leaders are often concerned with holding others accountable rather than creating an environment for self-accountability. The most productive environments are those where people hold themselves to high standards of follow-through.
That said, leaders still need to have some ability to evaluate how well their people hold themselves accountable. The Accountability Scale can be an excellent place to start.
A Parable for Accountability
A farmer had three sons and needed to figure out which of them should take over the farm. He gave each of them the same simple task: go to the farmer down the road and inquire about buying his cow. The farmer promised to check in with each son the following week.
The following week came, and the farmer went to his first son to discover what he had learned. The first son said, “Oh, right, sorry I didn’t get to that. I wasn’t feeling very well over the weekend and had other things to take care of.”
The farmer then went to his second son. His second son said, “I talked with the neighbor, and he has two cows for sale at $2,500 each. They are available next week if we want to buy either of them.”
The farmer then went to his third son, who said, “I spoke with our neighbor and three other nearby farmers. I learned a lot about what to look for when buying a cow, how cows are priced, and when is the best time to buy. In fact, if we wait four weeks, we will get a better deal.”
Who would you choose to take over your farm if you were the farmer?
The Accountability Scale
This parable illustrates how the farmer set up an environment of self-accountability and allowed his sons to rise to the occasion.
The first son didn’t even do the assignment. He had no accountability. He only gave excuses for not following through, and his response was utterly underwhelming.
The second son did what was asked—no more, no less. His effort was “whelming”—he had minimum accountability, but no more, no less. He brought the information necessary to his father, but he didn’t provide any further details that would assist the decision process. He followed through, but precisely to the letter.
The third son showed initiative, acted proactively and intelligently, and brought back more information than was requested. Is there any doubt that the third son would have known which neighbors’ cows would be the best buy in quality and price? He was able to offer both advice and wisdom for the decision. His performance was overwhelming, and he exhibited high accountability.
Assessing Your TeamEach son in the parable above received the same instruction, but each one had a different response. For a leader, the challenge is to create an environment that promotes high self-accountability. How can you manage in a way that encourages people to hold themselves accountable? Here are four steps to enable self-accountability.
Shift Responsibility Back to the Employees
Your job is to create an environment for productivity and accountability; the employee’s job is to perform and be accountable. Assume that your employees want to do well, and treat them like adults. Avoid blame, manipulation, and passive-aggressive behavior when something doesn’t go right. If team members aren’t performing to expectations, it’s likely a result of misunderstanding or inability. You can help remedy those issues by clarifying or training. When you are responsible for your role and tasks and allow team members to be accountable to themselves, you are helping to set up the right conditions for a high-performing team.
Offer Clear Parameters
Your employees aren’t mind readers. They may think they are performing to your expectations, but if your instructions are unclear, they may underperform through no fault of their own. Sometimes, employees don’t even know what questions to ask. Be sure you are giving clear instructions and setting clear expectations, so your employees are set up to succeed.
Remember, too, that employees have different levels of skill and experience. You may need to adjust your management to the level of specific employees—and then adjust again as that employee grows into a position.
Both you and your team need a way to check progress and measure results. Depending on the task or role, it may be helpful to agree on interim measures and regular milestones for both of you to check-in. If something starts to slip or your team member runs into obstacles, these milestones will allow you to identify a fix, brainstorm solutions, and provide resources to overcome barriers.
Provide Honest and Ongoing Feedback
Promoting self-accountability doesn’t mean you have to take a completely hands-free approach to management and wait to see what happens. You should regularly check in with your team members and provide honest, ongoing feedback. Remember, your goal is to provide insight and clarity and offer support so your team members can meet or exceed expectations. Rather than use these sessions as opportunities for blame or recrimination, isolate the specific behaviors that need improvement and coach to those behaviors. And remember to offer praise for good work as well!
As you evaluate your team members according to the Accountability Scale, remember that most of them want to be high performers. Understanding where they are on the scale can help you nudge them toward full self-accountability, successful teaming, and long-term productivity.
- Where is your team on this scale?
- How are you managing to promote self-accountability?
- Do your remote or hybrid employees exhibit high self-accountability?