You can improve employee accountability in the workplace no matter where you are today. Here’s what it takes to build a culture where everyone does their best.

Not sure how to increase accountability in the workplace? Sometimes managers avoid the topic because they find it uncomfortable.

Sometimes teams experience so much change that productivity expectations just come secondary to getting everyone through their challenges.

But not being intentional about workplace accountability is bad all around.

It’s bad for employees who may wonder whether or not they’re performing well enough. For instance, imagine a salesperson who rarely meets a tracked sales goal, but doesn’t discuss it with a manager.

And a lack of accountability at work sends a message to your staff that standards don’t matter all that much. Even high performers may pull back their effort if:

  • Expectations are unclear
  • A manager doesn’t seem to care
  • Systems are flawed and neglected

When you don’t acknowledge problems that get in the way of your team’s productivity, they may perceive it as indifference or weakness, which can be demotivating for everyone.

But you can work toward establishing a culture of accountability for your team, no matter where you are today. Keep reading for five key realities that will help you improve employee accountability and:

  • Approach accountability in the workplace more meaningfully
  • Create an environment that encourages everyone to contribute their best work

1. Accountability in the workplace isn’t about control

Oftentimes, managers associate accountability with control. The result of this can be leaders who steer their employees toward goals with measures like:

  • Mandatory hours
  • Tight production controls
  • Closely scrutinized key performance indicators (KPIs)

But that’s not the way true workplace accountability should function. Before someone can be accountable to a team, they must be accountable to themselves. Accountability must stem from a personal place – it’s an internal task. And intrinsic motivation isn’t something a manager can manufacture for an employee.

However, what you can do as a manager is ensure you are being accountable to your employees yourself, managing excellent processes and leading by example. Focusing on these aspects helps point your people in the right direction and encourages them to be more responsible to each other.

2. The whole system matters

When we talk about accountability at work, there’s also a tendency to focus on individual players, such as:

  • The poor performer
  • Someone who often fails to follow through
  • The one who just isn’t pulling their weight

And we may struggle in our approach to productivity problems because we are too focused on how we can fix that single individual.

In reality, optimal performance depends on many interconnected factors, including:

  • The entire team – employees and supervisors
  • Their policies and processes
  • The technology they must use
  • The metrics that are tracked

Before going to an employee to address an issue, managers should examine the whole system that surrounds that person, looking for areas that may be causing or contributing to problems.

Here are some other common reasons that may be associated with an individual’s inadequate performance:

  • A manager who doesn’t give clear instructions
  • Insufficient training
  • Technical issues
  • Conflicting priorities
  • A lack of checkpoints

Sometimes what’s most needed before we approach underperformers is an action – like finally modifying legacy KPIs, owning up to our shortcomings as leaders or acknowledging technology gaps.

Do your due diligence, and be bold enough to examine all the related factors. This is how leaders can show accountability in the workplace.

3. You get what you expect

Your team’s performance is completely influenced and transformed by your positive (or negative) expectations – that’s the principle behind a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect.

Your view of a person or your team becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you tell your team that you want a particular standard met, and expect them to deliver, they typically rise to the occasion. But on the other hand, if you set the bar low, you’re going to get back what you’ve required.

4. You have to be clear

Knowing how transformative your expectations can be should motivate you to be extremely clear about what those expectations actually are. You can’t assume that your team thinks like you do. Every employee is different in the way they process information and respond to it.

Saying, “Let’s be more accountable,” and little else can make accountability feel like a mystery word. Your direct reports need to see what employee accountability looks like.

The more direct, crisp and clear you communicate your expectations, the better.

5. Emotional intelligence is required

Here’s a safe assumption related to workplace accountability: People sometimes don’t understand the impact of their behavior. It’s your job as supervisor to be kind, find the root cause of the problem and establish a mutual way forward.

For example, James shows up 30 minutes late every day. After talking with him, you’ve learned the reason is that he has to drop his child off at school before heading to work. In his previous position, his 8:30 start wasn’t a problem, but in his new position, it is.

First, explain why it’s important for everyone to start at 8 a.m., then seek to help him address the situation. James either needs to change his schedule, or you need to let him work a flex schedule. Based on his position and your company’s policies, you should be able to find a solution.

Throughout your conversations, concentrate on maintaining the employee’s self-esteem by showing concern for the individual as well as for the company’s needs. Seek to understand why certain actions were taken or tasks were performed.

For example, you might ask:

  • “Can you walk me through the process you followed here?”
  • “Did you experience a technical issue we need to fix?”
  • “Would it help if I sat in on your next meeting?”

Following through

While holding employees accountable may sound confrontational, it doesn’t have to be. Focusing on the performance of the whole system, not just a person, will help you make the most progress.

And remember: Most people genuinely want to do a good job.

Want more tips for improving your management skills? Download our free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.