The term “Accountability” has grown in popularity in the workplace over the last few years. And with many teams working remotely (at least part time) for the foreseeable future, accountability and responsibility are becoming increasingly important.

But what exactly do we mean by “accountability”?

Namely, we are all responsible for our actions, ownership of tasks, attitude, behavior, and decision-making. If accountability is part of a workplace culture, you can expect an increase in morale, productivity, and commitment to work. (No, really!)

Employees who take pride in their work, who see how they are an integral part of the team, want to do what’s needed to get it done, achieve the goals.

Employees who embrace accountability do not pass the buck and assume that a job is “the other guy’s” responsibility. Accountable employees embrace their inner Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States. President Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read loud and clear, “The Buck Stops Here!”

Yet team leaders cannot “demand” accountability. You can’t force employees to be responsible. You can foster a positive environment where accountability is valued and rewarded. Then employees will be more motivated to take pride and ownership in their work, and to fulfill their commitments.

How do we make accountability an integral part of your company’s culture?

It’s not always easy, as holding people accountable sometimes results in conflict; most people do their best to avoid conflict. Or sometimes leaders simply forget!

There are several steps leaders can take to make others more accountable. While these steps are not always easy, in truth they are fairly simple.

Accountability Begins with You, the Leader

Good leaders set the tone and the culture of the office, be it the entire organization, a department, or a single  team. Most employees want to follow the lead of a passionate manager who practices what they preach. Accountability starts on top of the pyramid, flowing throughout the organization.

While the New England Patriots are well- known for their recent Super Bowl successes, it is often forgotten that for decades they were a poorly run club, often the laughing stock of the National Football League. The team was plagued by poor personnel decisions, questionable financial moves, and hiring and firing a revolving carousel of head coaches.

When Robert Kraft purchased the Patriots in 1994, he instituted a cultural shift that became an extension of his beliefs, his actions and his overall attitude towards leadership and accountability.

According to Kraft, “For us it’s simple: we try to collect good people, encourage them to take risks, and be bold. And if they’ve taken risks and it hasn’t worked out right, but they’ve done what’s in the best interest of their company or been very logical, we encourage them to do that.”

Team Goals Over Individual Goals

It’s essential to set goals; employees need to be able to visualize what they and everyone else are trying to achieve for the benefit of the team.

It’s important to remember that goals must be measurable. They must be clear, and they should be challenging (but realistic, of course). The goals should be tied to the company goals and to the goals of people higher up in the organization; therefore, everyone will see how they can, as individuals, impact the bigger picture. By understanding goals on a team level, employees can easily understand their roles and responsibilities on an individual level. And they realize they’re not just a cog in the wheel, but a vital part of the organization.

It’s Not Just the Feedback, but How You Deliver It

It’s important to possess good feedback skills. And like any skill, it can be improved upon. Improving this skill is vital, as giving tough feedback is often difficult for everyone one involved, if not done well and with good intentions.

And, like all skills, the more you provide feedback, the better at it you’ll get, regardless of the situation. Consequently, during those situations when tough feedback is required, it will be easier for you, and you’ll provide it in a better, more constructive way. It will also reduce the element of surprise when an employee receives negative feedback. When an employee is surprised, distrust and disengagement tend to emerge.

How to make negative feedback a more positive experience:

  • Provide a safe environment, one that is private, where employees feel comfortable being vulnerable and being themselves.
  • Do your best to make them aware that your feedback comes from a place with a positive outcome in mind. Ultimately, they must know (and feel) that you are looking out for them, that you want them to grow and ultimately succeed. Your goal is for them to soon be in a better place.
  • Feedback must be specific. Specific feedback will make the employee feel that your goal is for them to have a better understanding of how to improve. Ambiguous, non-professional feedback leads to distrust.
  • But make sure you don’t become the Performance Police! You give/reiterate the desired outcome and ask them to come back to you with the plan of how they will achieve it. Then you can bless, tweak, add, delete so you both agree to the plan. They are then accountable to the achievement or not. It’s their choice to meet the outcomes or not!

You Provide Feedback, and They Do, Too

Providing effective feedback is an important first step. But you’re only halfway there. You also need to be able to receive it and to provide the opportunity for others to give it.

A culture of two-way feedback provides an atmosphere of trust, openness, and a safe space for people to speak their minds. Without two-way communication, employees tend to “wall you off” and disengage. When employees feel confident communicating and identifying issues, the team becomes more efficient and important resources (i.e., time & money) are being used wisely, not wasted.

Accountability Is Not an Occasional Thing

Accountability must be a habit and is most effective when feedback is given (and received!) on a consistent basis. An effective way to ensure consistency of accountability is to have “feedback” as an agenda item monthly or quarterly at a minimum. Team meetings and one-on-one sessions are perfect opportunities to provide two-way feedback.

Finally, Keep Track of Your Accountability

Accountability must be documented and assigned. When teams get busy (as we all do), accountability can easily fall by the wayside. During team meetings, assign action items (or “to dos”) to team members and make sure they are documented. This will strengthen team accountability and make everyone responsible for individual tasks. In addition, a written record of accountability can assist in evaluating team and individual performance. If your team is hitting your accountability goals time after time, this information is a powerful determinant of rewarding them appropriately.

Back to the New England Patriots … professional athletes love their numbers, their accountability as it shows how they’re progressing and/or what they need to focus on.

Do your teams love the numbers/accountability built into your organization?

Like any other difficult exercise, accountability can be difficult. But if you keep at it, you’ll improve and (again, like exercise) you will find it very rewarding. Accountability allows you to grow as individuals and as a team, creating a trusting, vibrant work environment!