Fostering Accountability in the Workplace

Managers should strive to create environments that engage employees and bring out their best.

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Ask 50 different people what it means to have an accountable workforce, and you could very well get 50 different answers, covering the gamut from creating well-defined job descriptions and establishing measurable goals to promoting only deserving employees and developing clearly outlined punishment for on-the-job failures.

What's not in dispute is the harm wrought by lack of accountability — things like ineffective work practices, quality control issues, high employee turnover, and customers lost due to poor service. In fact, a Gallup poll estimates that the lost productivity that stems from disengaged and unaccountable employees costs American businesses between $287 and $370 billion annually.

It's no small wonder that workplace accountability has become such a hot-button issue and the subject of numerous books, business columns and blogs. But before you start assessing employees with a RACI matrix (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) or form "accountability centers" or try any of the other dozens of systems aimed at establishing workplace accountability, Paul Glen has a few words of sound advice: You can't force employees to be accountable, any more than you can force the proverbial horse to drink water.

What you can do, however, is create conditions under which employees are more likely to choose accountability. And punishment has nothing to do with it.

"To me, accountability is an interior state of mind in which employees feel personally accountable for their own productions and work," says the award-winning author, management consultant and chief executive officer of Leading Geeks Co. ( "The underlying assumption is that fear of being punished is a great motivator, and sometimes it is ... but ultimately, punishment is not a great motivator for knowledge work.

"If you want people to be creative, they must be motivated to engage in their work, rather than be motivated to avoid a punishment," he continues. "If employees are busy paying attention to punishment, they're not paying attention to their work. And if you're thinking through the lens of punishment to create accountability, you're already past the point where success is possible."

Foster an accountable environment

So if managers can't force employees to be accountable, what can they do? Glen says it's actually quite simple: Create an environment where accountability can grow. To do that, he offers three specific things managers can do:

1. Explain the meaning of work to employees. By this, Glen means going beyond just telling employees the facts surrounding their jobs. Instead, provide a broader worldview that gives them a context from which they can see the importance of what they do.

As an example, he cites municipal sewer inspectors and maintenance workers. The basic facts of the job can be less than appealing: unglamorous working conditions in underground pipelines, dealing with sewage, repetitive tasks and so forth.

"But it becomes much more rewarding if they think about their jobs in terms of how they help maintain public health systems," he explains. "Consider the fact that the vast increase in human life spans from age 45 to the mid-70s is mainly due to effective plumbing, not antibiotics. Or think of people dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Most people don't think about how sewers work, but they're damn important."

2. Give employees control over their success and failure. Creating an environment where employees feel they're empowered to succeed or fail on their own merits is a powerful motivator for accountability. But they need to feel their performance is being fairly judged.

"For example, say you have a municipal work crew that's unable to do its work until two previous crews finish their jobs," Glen says. "But that third crew is told their performance will be judged by the timeliness of the first two crews. People are wired for fairness ... they don't want to be punished because of someone else's mistake."

3. Provide employees a reasonable say in work evaluations. Giving employees a voice in what criteria is used to judge their work also increases buy-in for accountability. For instance, evaluating everyone in a municipal sewer cleaning department on how many feet of sewer they can clean per day, without taking into account that some stretches of sewer may be far more difficult to clean than others, might lead to disengaged employees who believe the playing field is uneven.

"But if I feel like I'm in control of my work and have input into the criteria used to judge my performance ... then preconditions exist that foster my feeling of responsibility and accountability for my own work," Glen says.

It's all about people, not tasks

Why is lack of accountability so widespread? Glen theorizes that part of it may stem from the traditional manager's mindset that he or she is managing tasks, not people. They tend to think about employees as units of productivity — cogs in a machine — that must be punished if things don't go well.

But each employee's path to accountability is idiosyncratic, he notes. Some are driven solely by career advancement. Others are driven to help people. Still more are spurred to be accountable because they like their colleagues and don't want to let them down.

"So as a manager, you must create conditions under which most people can find their path to accountability," Glen says. "I often relate it to the idea of gardening. The truth is, seeds will grow on their own, but you can create conditions that can help them grow. But even in a perfect greenhouse environment, some seeds still won't grow.

"Managers often have a sense of causality or power that's misplaced. They don't realize they have very modest access to the interior lives of people who work for them — their emotions, personal motivations and so on," he continues. "Many people respond differently to the same stimulus, so the actual cause and effect on their interior lives is much less than they'd like to believe.

"In fact, managers have more power to demotivate than to motivate," he concludes. "So the best you can do is create good conditions. After that, the employees must decide how to respond."


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