Streetwise: How to Hold Your Staff Accountable

October 17, 2020

From our friends at Eure Consulting:

Holding staff accountable is every manager’s least favorite part of the job. It is not an easy or a fun task to tell someone they are doing something wrong. Most managers are reluctant to have those tough, but necessary, conversations with their employees. And even when those conversations are had, they tend not to be as direct as they could be. The employees often don’t hear what was intended because managers simply hint and hope that their employees will eventually get the message. It would be nice if everyone would just do exactly what we needed them to do without us having to tell them, but that’s just wishful thinking. No one is a mind reader.

Embedding accountability at all levels of your company is essential to creating a high performance organization.

We have a proven process for doing just that. But before we get to that process, you first need to shift your mindset.

You cannot see accountability as something to be feared, but rather something to be embraced. Holding people accountable does not mean that you are the bearer of bad news, always ruining someone’s day with your negativity. It means that you are giving them a chance to get better. You are showing them where and how they can improve and letting them give it their best shot.

Everybody wants to improve – at work, in our relationships, in our individual pursuits. We want to be able to push ourselves. We’re constantly looking to better ourselves and grow. The only way we can do that is if we know how we are performing and what we might do to improve that performance. That’s accountability.

Without accountability people lose their drive and their passion. Work becomes mundane and routine. When there is no longer a challenge, why even bother? Everyone wants to get better at what they do. Maybe they want to become an expert in their field or maybe they just want to learn how to use excel more efficiently. Whether big or small, people take pride in conquering challenges and you can help them do that by holding them accountable.

Accountability only serves to make people, and their work lives, better.

Now that you have a new outlook on accountability, we can dive into our method for building it in to your company. We’ve heard people call it building a culture of merit or a culture of feedback, we like the phrase building in accountability, you’re welcome to call it whatever you’d like.

There are three steps to building accountability into your organization. Conveniently they all start with C: Clarity, Communication, and Consequences.

Clarity is specifically about role clarity and clearly defined expectations. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase you can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s true. If you have not clearly laid out exactly what you expect from your employees, you cannot hold them accountable to meeting those expectations.

There is nothing worse in life than having to try to guess what your boss wants from you. Employees that feel they are continually chasing a moving target or who are trying to read the minds of their superiors, will quickly disengage.

Take the time to lay out in great detail what is expected from each and every role at your company. Make sure to focus only on the role itself and what the company needs that role to accomplish. It can be easy to slip into thinking about who is in the role now and what they do well, or poorly, but you have to stay objective and think only of what the company needs from the role, regardless of who is currently in the role.

Every employee should know exactly what is expected of them from day one.

Clearly defined roles take the guesswork out of success and show each employee exactly how they can be a star performer. It takes time and energy to make sure that every role in your company is clearly and explicitly defined, but it will save you that effort 10 times over when your staff know exactly what to do and when to do it, without having to stop and ask every day.

You might try to argue that employees don’t want to be told exactly what to do every day of their lives, but by giving employees this framework for success, you are actually giving them the ability to control their days. If they know exactly what you need from them, they are able to set their own schedule of when and how to get those things done. You’ve defined their sandbox for them and they get to play however they want within it.

Providing a framework for success gives your employees the clarity they need to be highly productive and highly engaged.

Taking the time to explicitly define every role at your company will not only help your current staff be more effective, but it will also help you if you find yourself needing to hire someone new for the role. You can actually use the role definitions before the hire to make sure you’re matching the right people to the right roles, reducing the chances of making a hiring mistake.

Once you’ve provided the Clarity that your employees need, you have to ensure they are getting the feedback they need through Communication. And it’s all about providing that feedback, both good and bad, on a regular, consistent basis. That means not just once a year!

Annual reviews, when used alone, just don’t cut it.

Research shows that two out of three employees feel they are not heard in these meetings. Over half feel they don’t receive raises or bonuses commensurate with their performance. Just 16% of employees actually prefer to receive feedback in a formal, once-a-year process. And only 4% feel that formal performance reviews are the best way to motivate and engage. Are you holding on to an outdated and ineffective feedback system?

As we just discussed in the Clarity section, employees want to improve their performance. They know very well how important this is. But to do better, they must receive feedback, and for that feedback to be valuable, it must be consistent, candid and caring (more C’s).

Consistent – Feedback has to be ongoing and immediate. Waiting to give feedback once a year is ineffective, outdated and virtually useless. Employees need to know how they’re doing now, not in 11 months. By offering immediate and timely feedback, you can provide your employees with better guidelines for improvement. They can grow and develop throughout the year, not just in the fourth quarter.

Candid – Feedback has to be direct and honest. You have to challenge your employees to do better. They need to know both where you see them performing well and where you’d like to see improvement. It’s a manager’s job to correct inappropriate behavior and reinforce desirable behavior.

Caring – Feedback has to take into account that the employee is a person. If your employees perceive that you view them simply as a means to an end, they will discount whatever feedback you provide them. But, if you’re giving feedback with the clear intention of helping them grow professionally and personally, employees will take you seriously and work with you to give the company their best.

Great leaders are, by definition, great communicators. Challenge yourself to be a better communicator and to give feedback more often. Make sure that you do it in a consistent, caring, and candid way. Do it as often and immediately as you can.

If you are making the time to give each employee the feedback they need and deserve. Not only will you get better results for your company, but you’ll help your employees be their best selves.

The final step, and where the actual accountability comes in, is to make sure that there are Consequences for employees based on your more frequent Communication. And, just like you’ll be giving employees good and bad feedback, there should also be good and bad Consequences for their actions.

Employees need to know that their reaction to your feedback will result in some kind of action. It is their choice whether to embrace your feedback or ignore it, but they need to know that either way that choice will have significance.

Good consequences are easy to define, a raise, a bonus, an extra day off, more time for passion projects, etc. That’s the kind of accountability everyone likes to be a part of.

Bad consequences are a little harder to define. You’ll have to find the right system for your company, but there should be something along the lines of a three-strikes-you’re-out approach.

If you are giving your employees clear and consistent feedback, along with any resources and/or training they need to act on that feedback, but they are still not putting in the effort to improve month after month, they need to be held accountable.

By communicating feedback on a more regular and timely basis, you’ll have a record to show the employee each and every time you’ve talked to them about this certain issue. If they are still unwilling, or in some cases unable, to perform the role to the level that is needed, you’ll have to let them go.

If you do have to let someone go, it’s really a blessing in disguise. Someone who is unable, or unwilling, to rise to the level of performance that you need is simply not the right fit for that role. They will be better off finding a different role that is more suited to the skills and abilities that they already have. Perhaps that is somewhere else within your company, but, more likely than not, that better fit will be found elsewhere.

So there you have it. The three C’s of Accountability: Clarity, Communication, and Consequences. Embedding these three things into your company will be the single best step you can take to improve the effectiveness and value of your organization.