Why are we discussing the idea of how to hold employees accountable? Well, accountability is crucial for any team that wants to succeed. When each team member understands their role and feels accountable for their actions, everyone performs to their expected ability. This causes the whole team to excel and more easily achieve their goals.

When we think about the best sports teams or most elite military units in the world, we can quickly see they all hold each other accountable. Not only that, the team leader or coach plays the most vital role in ensuring that accountability is part of the fabric of their team.

However, the workplace is not a sports team or a military unit. If a team leader tries to manage their employees like a drill sergeant, they’ll quickly find themselves looking to replace all their lost talent who are not interested in being treated in such a manner.

Workplace Accountability Vs. Workplace Environment

This sets up a dilemma for business leaders. How do you hold employees accountable while fostering a workplace environment that people enjoy and attracts the best talent?

It’s no easy task, and often, team leaders and managers err on the side of less accountability simply because it helps keep the office dynamic more friendly.

But unfortunately, the team’s progress and each individual’s success will suffer with this approach. So, in the end, it doesn’t help anybody in the long term. 

Therefore, team leaders must find the right balance between fostering success through accountability and not crossing that line, creating a toxic work environment.

A toxic work environment can be as bad as one without accountability. People in such environments often burn out very quickly. Worse yet, it can lead to infighting and unhealthy competition that derails almost every initiative.

Below, we’ll offer leaders and managers some tips to help bridge this gap and find the right balance between accountability and fostering an environment that encourages your employees to shine.

Defining Employee Accountability

At its core, accountability is ownership. It’s ownership of a task and seeing it through to the end as promised. It also means ownership of any errors or mistakes along the way. In this way, holding accountable, meaning both for yourself and your team, is about confronting issues and fixing them.

Accountability isn’t about punishment or calling people out for mistakes. Instead, it’s employees owning and analyzing those issues objectively and honestly. Once done, they then make adjustments and changes to prevent those same mistakes from happening again.

How To Hold Employees Accountable For Performance

Let’s use the following example. A team member is late in delivering specific research analytics that would help the marketing team to start create focus group questions, which then slows down the entire project. That team member, as well as the team manager, must address the cause of that delay without necessarily focusing on blame.

Was the deadline too short to begin with? Did the employee not have the proper data to finish on time? Did the employee not reach out soon enough when they knew something was falling out of schedule?

Addressing these possible causes and making changes to prevent them from occurring again is an example of how to hold someone accountable in a productive way.

This is a key aspect of accountability; it’s not blame or pointing fingers. It’s ownership of an issue and finding the true solution to prevent it from happening again. Each time this occurs, the employee and team get stronger.

Accountability fosters individual and team growth through a series of continuous small improvements. On the other hand, non-accountability causes teams to become less and less efficient, and individual employees become less engaged in outcomes.

Accountability Starts At The Top

This may seem obvious, but accountability has to start at the top. Team leaders and business owners must demonstrate accountability if they want their employees or staff to be accountable.

The best leaders lead by example first and then through motivation second. You can’t motivate and inspire people if they see you skirting responsibility or not taking ownership of your own tasks. Holding staff accountable is much easier when the team leaders are also accountable.

Part of this also comes down to communicating your actions to your team. They may not know about the positive things you do. If you see a deadline approaching and something needs to get done, your team may not be aware that you took on that role at the last minute and stayed late to finish it.

We’re not encouraging you to brag about everything you do to help the team. Instead, we want you to make sure your team sees your own leadership examples. If you’re a modest person or someone who piles responsibility on themselves to avoid asking others, your accomplishments may go unnoticed.

As a leader, that’s not good. Your team looks up to you to set the example, and they need to know what you do.

Solutions Are The Goal Of Accountability

When employees do not meet a goal or a miss deadline, the focus should be on the cause and then the solution. Ensure your employees understand that this is the true purpose and the goal of accountability or ownership.

By doing this, it takes away the fear of owning up to mistakes. Most team members will avoid accountability because they believe it will reflect poorly on them and their performance.

But by reversing this and instead focusing on the cause and solution, the employee has now helped the team by creating new processes that are less likely to result in a poor outcome. The negative has now turned into a positive.

How to Hold Employees Accountable For Errors

Focusing on why something is not done is best for holding employees accountable for performance errors. If you assigned a task to a team member and they either did not complete it or did it incorrectly, you need to be genuinely curious as to why it did not happen.

Being genuinely curious means being fair and empathetic to the employee when asking why. There may be obstacles you are unaware of that are making things difficult, either in your processes or for the employee personally.

A perfect example is if an employee didn’t know who to approach if they encountered a certain problem. Because they faced uncertainty, they stalled their progress, and eventually, they missed a deadline.

A solution in these cases is to have a set point of contact for each task in case assistance is needed. Especially for multi-layered tasks, which may require several points of contact across different departments.

Clearly Define Expectations

Accountability comes much easier when you set clear expectations for employees.

When expectations are not clearly defined, indecision and other negative ideas can creep into people’s performance, and personal accountability starts to fall off.

For example, if an employee is assigned to create an analysis of sales data over the past 60 days, they should know exactly what that report should include and what breakdowns are expected.

However, expectations should also include possible ramifications if the goals or objectives are not met. When it comes to deadlines, some companies or projects can have soft deadlines, and it isn’t critical if they are missed. While in other situations, deadlines may be critical to the project and the company.

Clearly defined expectations for the task and the ramifications, if not met, help keep everyone accountable should something fall short.

Suppose these expectations are not clearly defined by a team leader. In that case, you can’t really come back and try to hold employees accountable because it’s possible the certain employee didn’t know.

This puts the leader or business owner in the spot of having no real recourse or path to hold people accountable in a way that seems fair.

Create An Environment Of Trust

Employees may want to avoid being held accountable because they fear losing their jobs or their positions. 

While you don’t want to tolerate endless mistakes or a feuded phone call that leads to poor customer service, you also don’t want your team to feel that one error or issue will cause damage to their career or livelihood.

To avoid this situation, create an atmosphere and culture around trust and communication. When something goes wrong and expectations are not met, make it about the employee finding a solution to the problem.

Engage with that employee and listen closely to what they have to say. Then, try to get them to develop their own solution moving forward.

This works to improve team accountability for two reasons. First, the solution is mostly coming from the employee, so they are more likely to adhere to it, knowing they suggested it in the first place. Second, it builds a workplace culture of trust because employees feel they can implement changes instead of getting a bad performance review or other negative consequences.

Of course, repeated offenses have to be dealt with. However, building a culture of trust and having employees play an active role in solutions make repeated failure far less common.

Don’t Micromanage

A good leader lets his team perform independently. When things go wrong or off track, it can be tempting to stick your nose into every area and try to micromanage.

Resist this temptation because employees start to disengage when their manager does this. When you micromanage employees, it actually takes accountability away from them. More responsibility is lifted from their shoulders and placed on the micromanager.

This is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve when creating a workplace accountability culture.

If you’re already micromanaging, you must pull back and put processes in place where employees can start operating independently again. Create workflows with clear expectations and have protocols if they get stuck or need assistance.

Give Employees The Tools They Need

For any business, there will be resources that your employees need to meet the expectations of the job. These can be anything from complex equipment to simple amenities like a comfortable office conducive to work.

One reason employees may not be accountable is that there is no record of what actually took place or what was supposed to occur.

If you’re using email chains around the office to give instructions and make changes, those may not be enough of a record to hold everyone accountable.

Instead, project management software may help as each team member then has a record of their assignments and milestones along the way. These tools also make communication much easier and can provide a running narrative of how projects or tasks are going.

Another area could be educational resources. These don’t necessarily have to be external, like classes. Perhaps an employee doesn’t fully understand a process or workflow situation within the business.

In this case, allocate the time to provide this employee with the instructions they need to get up to speed to avoid any issues in the future.

Almost a limitless number of resources are possible depending on your business and industry. So be on the lookout for areas where you can increase accountability and remove excuses by providing the tools to do the job.

Problems Caused By External Factors

Sometimes, the cause of expectations not being met or the lack of accountability can be due to factors outside of the workplace. This can be things like personal issues that employees may be dealing with.

This is a delicate area, and each situation must be viewed as unique. There may also be laws and regulations that must be followed depending on the situation, so make sure you are aware of these before proceeding with sensitive issues.

But the key with these is to decide if the issue is just temporary or if it appears to be an issue that will be present for a while.

The issue then has to be weighed against the employee and what skills and talent they bring to the team. A talented team member who contributes and deals with temporary issues is likely someone you want to work with to find a solution. That may even mean letting them adjust expectations based on their current situation until things improve.

However, longer-term issues may mean that an employee is not a good fit for the team. It can be a tough decision, so make sure to give it the proper consideration and weigh all your options before proceeding.

Use Metrics To Hold Employees Accountable

When it comes to how to increase accountability in the workplace, metrics are the key to keeping accountability fair and preventing any accusations of personal targeting.

When dealing with accountability issues, the employee can quickly take it personally. Using documented metrics of performance helps to prevent this.

Metrics will vary across different industries and with different job titles. Most metrics for employee performance will be Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

These metrics will be under the following main categories.

  • Work Quality
  • Work Quantity
  • Work Efficiency
  • Organizational Performance

Finding the right KPIs for your industry and team and then using them in each category will help paint a picture of how each employee is doing relative to the entire team.

You can then share this data during private meetings with that employee to address any issues. Using data and metrics keeps the initial process objective and focused on performance and expectations.

With that out of the way, you can proceed with more personal communications to determine the root causes of the problem and then solutions. This is how to hold someone accountable at work without them feeling like it was a personal attack.

Don’t Lower Expectations

If goals and initiatives are not being met and they are critical to the success of the business, don’t lower expectations.

This may seem obvious, but team leaders and business owners can often be lulled into slowly reducing expectations to meet their employees somewhere in the middle. This happens slowly over time and is sometimes not noticeable in the day-to-day hustle of business operations.

Take time to evaluate if this may have happened to your team. Are things being allowed to slide now that weren’t being allowed before? Are deadlines suddenly not as important anymore, and now everything feels like it’s late or rushed?

These can all be signs that expectations have been slowly lowered over time, sometimes unknowingly. 

If this has happened, it needs to be reversed. But it can’t be reversed overnight. Slowly start to raise expectations in the most critical areas first. Then, build off of that momentum to improve other areas.

Deal With Poor Performance Immediately

This is related to the previous tip, and they both go hand in hand. Poor performance and a lack of accountability breeds more of the same. These things almost never clear up on their own. Instead, they quickly create a culture that resists accountability.

When you notice poor performance or a lack of accountability, address it as soon as possible. Like most problems, the sooner you address it, the easier it is to fix.

Quickly addressing issues also helps to raise expectations automatically and makes team members take responsibility for their actions. Employees see that problems are rectified quickly, and it makes them less willing to let things fall through the cracks and become someone else’s problem.

Ongoing Feedback

Feedback is important to maintaining accountability. Employees need to know that the process is always ongoing. Not only that, they need to understand they are an integral part of accountability.

This goes for team leaders as well. Communication and feedback have to go both ways, and leaders need to hear what employees are thinking. They need to be aware of what they may need or areas where they need help.

To facilitate this, make sure that communications are open to two-way discussions. These can be team meetings at regular intervals or an internal discussion board to keep employees engaged regularly.

Whichever method works best for your team, ensure it stays active and that people never feel out of touch.

Restructure The Team If Needed

Unfortunately, there are times when certain employees are just not a good fit for the company or the team they are on. This can happen for many different reasons, and it doesn’t mean they are necessarily a poor performer. It just means they aren’t the right fit.

Coming to this decision should be carefully considered, as letting someone go can create a difficult time for that person. However, if it needs to be done, this apprehension shouldn’t play a role in the decision.

This is also a good reason to use metrics like we described earlier. Using metrics to inform your decision helps to avoid any personal feelings from interfering.

Always try to work with a team member first to improve accountability and performance. Sometimes, a small change can yield drastic changes. However, if nothing works, then it may be time to restructure the team or find new talent that better fits the requirements of the job.

Holding Employees Accountable Takes Effort

Finally, it’s important to understand that creating a culture of accountability for employees takes time and effort. This is especially true if your team has been lacking accountability or responsibility due to a negative workplace culture.

When trying to initiate accountability, it’s best to try to start with the most mission-critical tasks that your team deals with first. Over time, this top-down approach will end up solving many of the smaller issues on its own.

Trying to fix the smaller or minor accountability issues first generally doesn’t work well, as it’s hard to communicate exactly why they are important. By focusing on mission-critical tasks, it’s much easier to communicate the importance of the changes you’re making as a team leader.

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