Home / HR Director’s Hub / VIDEO & ANALYSIS: High Performance: Make Employees Responsible for Outcomes |HBR

VIDEO & ANALYSIS: High Performance: Make Employees Responsible for Outcomes |HBR

Εικόνα5Dick Grote, president of Grote Consulting, offers tips for improving the performance of problem employees. For more, read How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals.


According to Jim Haudan, CEO of Root Inc. many organizations attempt to create a climate of accountability with robust performance management systems. The hope is that by building clarity and accountability into the rollout of enterprise strategies and team goals, the likelihood of achieving them will increase. Despite conscious efforts to launch new strategies with communication and goal cascading systems, most employees remain confused about the business direction and how the business targets affect them. Leaders often comment that the reason why a business isn’t growing is because it lacks accountability.

The distinction is critical, and the examples of being vested in each other’s success extend far beyond just business.

The challenge is that the word “accountability” may make you think of management enforcement. Mike Thaman, CEO of Owens Corning, makes a critical distinction between the difference of “holding someone accountable,” which has mainly negative and punitive connotations, and “creating accountability in others,” which is about being vested in the performance success of others. The distinction is critical, and the examples of being vested in each other’s success extend far beyond just business.

According to Monica Ojendyk, Senior Director, Enterprise Learning & Development, TSYS, here’s a lot of talk about accountability in today’s work environments. But what does it really mean?

If you don’t do “X,” then “Y” will happen – is that accountability? In most organizations, people are working across departments, across time zones, even through language barriers to achieve goals for their companies. Creating accountability in the ever-expanding workplace is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional issue in today’s environment.

Even considering the complexity of today’s workplace, creating accountability may not be as hard as we make it seem. For example, some of the root causes I’ve seen for a lack of accountability include miscommunication from leaders and misunderstanding from employees. Without clarity and alignment in these areas, there is no way to create accountability. If a leader thinks his or her people should be doing one thing, but those people heard it as another, how can anyone be successful?

Creating a culture of accountability may start at the top, but it is really the job of the managers in the trenches to execute. Here are some ways people can create accountability in their teams and across their organizations:

  • Create Relationships: You need to figure out how to tap into the emotional needs of your people to help them understand their roles. Focus on the relationships first and the results afterward. Leaders need to be more aware of the small things they can do to influence their teams’ happiness, productivity, and contributions – treat them well, respect them as human beings, and open the lines of communication. Do the best things you can for your people – including providing constructive criticism and discipline.
  • Set Clear Expectations: People need to know exactly what they are expected to do, what destination they are headed toward, and what the successful outcome looks like. They also need to know what the consequences might be if the goal is not met. Be sure to delineate who owns which roles in the initiative and what each function is responsible for accomplishing. If you are very clear on responsibilities, expectations, and costs of not delivering, people can get there faster. There is less organizational noise to sift through.
  • Take Ownership Yourself: What’s your piece? Do you know? Do your people know? Own your part, own the whole, and humbly step up when your piece isn’t going as planned. It takes courage to stick your neck out, but your people will respect you for it, learn from it, and be driven to collaborate with you in new and different ways.
  • Provide Tools for Success: Give people the resources they need to do the job you’re asking them to do. Whether that is training, access to data, or the autonomy to make decisions and take risks, let them know what is OK and what you are comfortable with. Help them see the bigger picture, tell them why it matters, and help them understand the impact their contribution will make.
  • Give Continuous Feedback: In any work scenario, you have to constantly evaluate if things are progressing as planned and what, if anything, needs to be adjusted to ensure you meet your goal. Check in, give suggestions, and reward positive forward motion among those you are responsible for. A little recognition goes a long way toward making people feel as though their work matters. It also sets the stage for others to emulate that behavior in hopes of being recognized as well.

When you set the roadmap clearly, help people become engaged and involved, and ensure they understand their roles, they will rise to the challenge. You will be surprised, maybe even in awe, of what your people are capable of accomplishing.

People want to do a good job. They want to feel as if they are part of something bigger. They want to be led. If you pave the way, they will follow.

According to Jim Haudan, the power of peer accountability is often underutilized and may in fact be the ultimate performance driver. Consider the quote from Olympian and soccer great Mia Hamm, who stated, “I’ve worked too hard and too long to let anything stand in the way of my goals. I will not let my teammates down and I will not let myself down.” And LeBron James commented after his new Miami Heat team failed to win the NBA championship, “I didn’t play well. I didn’t make enough game-changing plays that I know I am capable of making, and I let my teammates down.” These are two great examples of the impact accountability has on more than just a single individual.

In story after story about heroic efforts in battle, a common theme can be found at the core of amazing accomplishments. For example, in a recent book about the wars in Afghanistan, the author observes that the troops he traveled with really had little in common. They came from different U.S. cities, had different hairstyles, liked very different music, and if they were in a core city center, would have most likely come from different gangs. Yet, on a daily basis he saw peer accountability so strong that they would willingly give their lives for each other. It was more than a bit puzzling. The commitment he saw was so strong, and the vesting in each person staying alive so pervasive, that the author was awestruck by how peer accountability and support united people to accomplish something none of them could have managed on his own.

The power of accountability starts with behaviors. It seems that for many leaders it is easier to hold individuals accountable for results and ignore the behaviors. But since behaviors always precede results, it is critical to build new “behavioral ground rules” or “behavioral contracts” for peers to adopt to hold themselves and each other accountable.

New strategies, goals, or initiatives can only be successful with new behaviors.

One of the most important mantras for leaders driving performance is “What you’re waiting for will never come.”

This means that leading performance in times of change can’t be intellectual for the leaders and emotional and behavioral for everyone else. Achievement and accountability are all about behavior change. The most effective way to create new team-based behavioral ground rules is for the team to identify the current team (peer) behaviors that are inconsistent with the new strategies or goals, as well as the needed behaviors for the new direction. Together the team must establish eight to ten behavioral ground rules that are critical for success. These can be general, like “Assume positive intent of others,” because distrust holds us back, or very specific, such as “Ensure that every decision for new technology passes our re-usable technology criteria.” The responsibility of each team member is to step up and stand out in holding themselves and each other accountable to these ground rules.

One of the largest obstacles to achieving peer accountability is overcoming the hesitance to give each other immediate critical feedback. Sometimes people think it will risk their positive relationship, but ultimately, if there is a lack of long-term accountability, the positive relationships disappear anyway. When we establish the peer responsibility to call out behaviors that are exhibited and inconsistent with our new behavioral ground rules, we make it more of the expected routine for everyone. Not that it is comfortable to step into these conversations, but continuing to ignore constructive feedback will not breed a culture of accountability. It hurts the team and it hurts the teammates themselves.

The anxiety of not being accountable to a respected team member is a catalyst for motivating performance and building strong peer accountability. The mindset and the actions that follow from being totally vested in someone else’s success will enable mutual success. In fact, creating a culture of accountability may have little to do with bosses.

It is all about peers and the commitments, relationships, and support that they provide each other – and the intense desire not to let each other down.


About Dimitra D.