I’ve been tackling some of these management terms that are often misunderstood. Or perhaps everyone has a slightly different interpretation of the meaning. Today, I want to address the meaning of accountability in the workplace. What does it mean for managers and employees? In this article, I will discuss from the perspectives of 1) managing individual employees 2) strategies at the broader level in the organization.
Holding people accountable
You may hear this term applied to leadership positions. For example, you may see in job postings for senior positions that one of their duties is to “hold people accountable”. It may be identified as a particular competency that a manager must demonstrate (and perhaps even be held accountable for themselves!). But when asked for an explanation of what this means – the answer is often vague.
Does it mean disciplining employees? Constantly watching and micro-managing them to get results? Confronting them when they don’t meet their targets?
So it can certainly raise some discomfort with managers.
Peter Bregman, in his article The Right Way to Hold People Accountable (Harvard Business Review January, 2016) provides an effective definition:
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.
He then goes on to outline steps that managers can take to develop accountability. And in reading these points, I see how this aligns with performance management.
Performance Management for Accountability in the Workplace
When used correctly, Employee Performance Management is such a valuable tool for both managers and employees. It enables both parties to work together to set clear and realistic goals, identify problems and remove barriers to ensure results are met.
Unfortunately, there are those that propose doing away with performance reviews. And no doubt, there are many “old school” approaches to performance reviews which are negative. However, the concept of just letting employees do what they want isn’t helpful for either manager or employee. Even highly skilled employees want to know “what results do I need to be successful?”
We can’t assume that employees will know exactly what is expected of them, no matter how skilled they are. There are going to be differences across culture at all levels (national and organizational). And how can we hold someone accountable against something that wasn’t specified? No doubt, many employees have been surprised at performance review time when they are being held accountable for something they didn’t even know was expected! And that can certainly lead to bad feelings and a break-down in the relationship.
Performance management sets clear, objective and measurable targets that employees can be held accountable for. These targets provide the basis for evaluation.
Did you meet the target? If not, why not? What will you do to fix it?
Build a culture of Accountability in the Workplace
At a more strategic level, your organization can cultivate the values and behaviours that promote accountability. For example – setting a value of integrity means that “we do what we say we are going to do”. Responsibility means that “we know others depend on us and we won’t let them down“.
By infusing these values throughout the workplace, employees will know that “accountability is just something that we do”. They will want to be part of it, and more likely to make an effort to make sure that they fit in with the company culture.
How do you cultivate values and build a culture of accountability in the workplace?
Well for starters, you need to make sure everyone understands the values and how they are demonstrated.
What does accountability in the workplace look like? How can I observe it? How do I know I’m doing it?
And it’s essential that leaders demonstrate these behaviours themselves if they expect others to follow. You must lead by example! That means you must demonstrate accountability for yourself and your work unit.
This is really about Performance Management at the strategic level. Making sure that there is consistency in how accountability is demonstrated, measured and reported at all levels in the organization. Strategizing, planning, evaluating, improving…… Obviously this takes time and conscious effort. But isn’t it worth it to build a culture of accountability?
Develop Performance Management Skills
To address both Strategic Performance Management and Employee Performance Management, we have two online ecourses. They can be taken individually, or purchased as a the Total Performance Management bundle (save $99 CAD). Learn at your own pace, however quick or long it takes, with 24/7 access to video lessons, exercises and self evaluation tools.