BY JASON ZICKERMAN • AUG 22, 2023
Jason Zickerman is the President and CEO of The Alternative Board, an international organization helping business owners and their leadership teams improve business and change lives.
Accountability is a remarkably dynamic word and so much more than a simple promise to perform. While the concept is rooted in responsibilities, the term also implies continuous action and a healthy system of checks and balances. At its core, accountability is about showing up, claiming ownership of a task, and then accomplishing the things you have committed. And everyone in your organization should do the same – because accountability is not a solo act. Accountability is the kinetic energy that fuels every successful organization.
Your own accountability as a business owner is a gimmie; as the leader of your company, your word is your bond. And there are also huge benefits in creating a culture of accountability throughout your organization.
You want employees to be answerable for their responsibilities. You want your team to work toward company goals, maintain certain metrics and meet their deadlines. While these accountabilities might seem rudimentary, you might be surprised how many businesses struggle with them.
I believe most employees want to do a good job and try hard to be accountable. If they fall short, a glitch in communication is usually at the heart of the problem. Maybe the employee was never clear on expectations. A lack of transparency possibly hobbled achievement. Or, as is often the case, perhaps the employee’s definition of success differed from that of their manager.
Fostering a culture of employee accountability is key to the success of any business, and the formula almost certainly starts with respect for your team, their strengths and their goals. Best-selling author and TED Talker Daniel Pink says that fostering a spirit of autonomy, mastery and purpose in your employees allows them the freedom and inner drive to develop creative solutions. He is right; by affording them these opportunities for self-direction and responsibility, you create better alignment in an environment where your people feel valued and their talents nurtured. This is to say that you set the stage in your business for a culture of accountability.
Employees crave autonomy
Autonomous employees are empowered to leverage their own judgment and take ownership of their decisions. Embracing a culture of self-responsibility throughout your business fosters a stronger sense of employee commitment, supports innovation and demonstrates your trust in your team’s capabilities and professionalism. By giving employees more flexibility and responsibility in their own approaches and outcomes, they become more thoughtful in their actions and decision-making processes.
Accountability and autonomy might feel like conflicting concepts at times. Getting the balance right can be challenging, but it is well worth the effort. It starts with communication and clarity. When you or your management team assign a task to an employee, ensure that the person is clear about what you want them to do and the expected results. Ask the employee to confirm what you are asking them to do. Let them know you are available if they have questions about the task. Then allow them to do their job. You can check in periodically to track their progress along the way.
Employees want mastery
Mastery is the process of honing one’s skills to a refined level. When you provide employees with development opportunities, they become quantifiably more engaged, productive and fulfilled in their jobs. Mastery boosts employees’ sense of accomplishment, positions them for a more rewarding career trajectory, and seeds the business with increasingly capable people. I talk a lot about win-win in business. Creating opportunities for your employees to master their skills while increasing your company’s competitive edge is certainly one of them.
Consider investing in your business’s employee development, mentorship and leadership training programs. The ROI for learning initiatives tends to be high from a financial and cultural perspective. And while an increase in accountability is challenging to track with real numbers, it is most definitely positively impacted by employee mastery.
Employees desire purpose
Now more than ever, employees yearn for a sense of purpose that serves as something larger than themselves in their professional and personal lives. Millennials and Gen Zs are particularly motivated to make a difference in the world around them at both a micro and macro level. By instilling a profound sense of purpose within the vision and mission of your company, you better attract and retain those people who are aligned with similar concerns and causes.
When employees feel empowered and impactful in their ability to support what they care about, they are more committed, intentional and accountable. Greater purpose inspires ownership in achieving above-and-beyond outcomes.
Purpose-driven employees also tend to be more adept at tackling challenges. They have faith in their own ability to overcome adversity to achieve a desired goal, so they willingly take on more responsibility and accountability to make things happen. Purpose is a powerful motivator on so many levels.
When employees fall short on accountability
What if you have put in the effort to create a culture of employee autonomy, mastery and purpose in your business, but your people are still lagging in the accountability department or are regularly just not meeting expectations?
Rather than resorting to criticism, I suggest you take a coaching approach. Ask the employee how they felt a glitchy project went. What worked well and what panned out poorly. Ask them to analyze the processes and procedures, then have them share those opinions with you. This will provide you with enormous insight, at least from this employee’s perspective, that you may not have considered.
While leveraging the coaching approach, you will often find that the employee admits their own culpability or poor performance in the project and makes suggestions for self-correction. Which, when you think about it, really is the definition of employee accountability, isn’t it?