United Workers Spring Retreat - Flickr

“I have tried to hold them accountable, but they still do not meet expectations.” Executives say this to me quite a bit regarding the people who work with them in their companies. As you might have guessed from this statement, accountability continues to be an area of deficiency in their organizations. More specifically, colleagues, direct reports and employees in general just do not take enough ownership of tasks or follow through on commitments.

When I discussed the accountability issue in more detail with these executives, I noticed the majority continued to focus solely on the actions of their colleagues, direct reports and employees. What I didn’t hear these executives talk about as much (if at all) was their own actions to help create a climate of accountability. When I asked the executives to share what they had done, the most common response was “I told them I am going to hold them accountable.”

There is no doubt that the actions of colleagues, direct reports and employees are critical, but the actions of the executives are more critical when it comes to accountability. According to the multi-year Workplace Accountability Study, 84 percent of those surveyed cite the way leaders behave as the single most important accountability influence factor in their organizations. Consequently, you as a leader play an essential role in creating a climate of accountability by the strategies you use with people in your company.

Unfortunately, I often find leaders use the same approach with everyone. When this approach fails to produce the desired accountability, leadership frustration is the outcome. To avoid this frustration, try using a foundational strategy that provides a more effective way to ensure individuals of interest will meet your expectations. This strategy utilizes empathy to truly understand each individual so that you can better tailor your methods to the particular person. The empathy strategy involves three steps.

Step 1: Check Situational Constraints

You may have employees who sincerely want to fulfill their commitments, but there are elements that they do not have complete control over that prevent them from doing so. For example, an employee could receive competing demands from different executives. These competing demands put the employee in a scenario that cannot be won—one of the executive’s tasks will not be completed resulting in the executive’s frustration with the lack of results.

Taking the time to understand the potential constraints helps provide a path to work through them. This will make it more likely that tasks are completed and commitments are fulfilled.

Step 2: Ensure Capability Fit

You may not have any situational constraints, but you could have a mismatch in individual capabilities. For example, a direct report could have completed all tasks that could get in the way, shown the drive to get what you need done, but fail because this person just does not have the entire skillset that is needed.

To help you circumvent this problem, gauge the capabilities of the individual you are planning to give the responsibility for the tasks. This can be done by reviewing the projects the individual has worked on to see if they demonstrated the required capabilities or at least strong potential for quickly developing them. If needed, gather input from colleagues to further confirm the individual possesses the required skillset. If the individual does not have enough of the requisite skillset, then you have a choice to make. Either find another person for the task or provide the person with the development that is needed to do the task well (assuming you have enough lead time for this to occur).

Step 3: Assess Willingness

What if you have someone who clearly has the capabilities to meet your expectations and no situational constraints but still drops the ball? This is a motivation issue. In this case, figure out what energizes the individual so that this person engages and completes required tasks. This can be done by using past experience with this individual to determine the motivational trigger or by talking with the person to get the information first hand. By default, many executives will try to motivate others through fear (e.g., implied threats). While this can be effective in some cases, don’t overuse it. From my experience, you will get more ownership of tasks and outcomes on a consistent basis when you find what energizes or gets people to engage than you will with repeated threats.

Accountability is not as mysterious as some executives make it seem. Simply recognizing what is needed to help employees demonstrate it can make a huge difference.

Related insights:

Accountability Does Not Require An “AH” Approach

Establishing an Environment of Accountability


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: United Workers Spring Retreat, Flickr)