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Why Great Leaders Struggle to Hold Their Employees Accountable

Why corporate leaders see consistently low levels of accountability in the workplace — and the strategic steps they can take to achieve higher organizational accountability and sustained results.

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BY Partners In Leadership - 17 Oct 2018

Why Great Leaders Struggle to Hold Their Employees Accountable

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

By Vince Martinez, Sr. Consulting Partner for Partners in Leadership, and an expert on business and organizational development training.

Often, corporate leaders find themselves in one of two positions: either they are consistently missing targets, stuck in a cycle of teams failing to deliver on the actions necessary to achieve desired results; or they are just meeting their numbers, but ultimately left wondering why employees are unable or unwilling to go above and beyond to exceed expectations.

Even when corporate leaders have excellent management skills and make the best hires in their fields, they often still struggle to hold others accountable for achieving shared organizational results. To compound the issue, employees across the globe are reporting historically low levels of engagement at work, rendering accountability an uphill battle for leaders everywhere.

Here's why corporate leaders have a difficult time holding others accountable.

How a Lack of Clarity Hinders Accountability in the Workplace

The most likely culprit for an accountability deficit in the workplace is simply a lack of clarity around the concept. Most employers don't think it necessary to define accountability -- they presume everyone already knows what it means.

Unfortunately, when leaders fail to create a common language for understanding accountability, employees all come to the table with their own notions: some may believe that accountability is the same thing as responsibility, while others believe that it requires taking the blame when teams fail to deliver as promised. Misalignment around what is meant by accountability causes misunderstanding and ineffective performance. As a result, your employees may end up pointing fingers and playing the blame game when something goes amiss.

Take this example: a supervisor asks an employee for a report by Friday. The employee works hard to complete the report and delivers it on time. When the supervisor reads the report, however, he or she becomes annoyed that it does not cover the proper scope, makes grammatical errors, or fails to include important metrics -- so the supervisor feels the employee is not being accountable. In the meantime, the employee feels confident that he or she has successfully taken accountability because the report was delivered on the specified topic at the specified time. Here, a lack of clarity around what accountability entails creates a kink in the pipeline, inhibiting results.

Even if employees do share a unified definition of accountability in the workplace, many leaders still fail to define their organization's critical Key Results. As a result, employees come to work without a sense of direction or an understanding of how their daily tasks impact larger-scale results. This lack of direction causes confusion when priorities in the workplace seem to shift. If there is no clear target toward which employees are moving as a team, there can be no sense of accountability for reaching that target.

The Secret to Higher Accountability at Work

The first crucial step toward holding others accountable at work is to address this lack of clarity. Begin by aligning your team around a shared definition of positive accountability as the personal choice to rise above one's circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving results. Disseminate this message throughout your organization, ensuring that employees in every department recognize that accountability demands proactive commitment to the organization's shared goals. In organizations with high accountability, employees do not simply meet expectations, but consistently ask themselves, What else can I do?

Once accountability is embraced by employees at every level of your company, identify the meaningful, measurable topline results that your organization must achieve each year. Research indicates that people struggle to remember more than seven items on any given list, so narrowing your goals down to just three to five crucial results gives all employees a clear, memorable, and meaningful target to which they can connect their daily work.

After you've achieved clarity around accountability and your organization's Key Results, it's time to operationalize by actively implementing these principles. Done effectively, this means that each employee aligns his or her daily actions around topline results, acting with the knowledge that he or she is a key player in achieving those results.

Consider the earlier scenario, reimagined: a supervisor asks an employee for a report by Friday. Keeping in mind that one of the organization's clearly defined topline results is 10% year-over-year revenue increase, the supervisor outlines their expectations that the report include specific revenue growth metrics. The employee asks a follow-up question to clarify these expectations and agrees to take accountability to include all necessary information in the report.

Feeling as though they can do more, however -- and remembering the desired result of 10% year-over-year revenue increase -- the employee takes the initiative to include relevant expenditures as well as growth metrics, and ensures the report is proofread before submission. The employee submits the thorough, results-focused report well before the deadline, and the supervisor is pleased. Both parties have held themselves accountable for achieving the desired outcome.

These are signs of a highly accountable company culture -- an environment in which employees on every level of the organization take the personal initiative to contribute to essential topline results. By defining accountability and outlining key organizational results, leaders can successfully hold others accountable for achieving these shared goals.

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