Accountability is a word that's tossed around haphazardly in the workplace, especially in the era of remote work. By my estimation, if you were to ask 10 people at the same company to define what it means to them, you'd probably get as many definitions. And therein lies the problem--but also an opportunity.
So, how do you make accountability meaningful for your employees, and in turn, your company? Well, in the same way most things are trending today--you personalize it.
1. Make employees a part of the process.
As a CPA-turned-CEO, I can tell you that designing an accountability infrastructure allows for a bit more humanization than the process of accounting. It's been through getting to know my employees and bringing them into the fold that I've discovered what motivates, satisfies, challenges, and scares them. Engaging on an interpersonal level has contributed endlessly to our shared success, and I extend that practice in helping to define and manage employee accountability at all levels.
Inviting employees to be involved in the process of setting the standards they're measured against not only establishes a shared acknowledgment of the metrics, but it puts them in the co-pilot role. As a leader, try to do more listening than talking; the more input they have in setting their own bar for achievement or success, the more accountable they will hold themselves in achieving the intended outcome.
2. Create a broader definition of 'success.'
The author Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant." Falling short of a goal does not equal failure. As a leader, it's important to recognize and reward efforts, discoveries, and improvements that help an individual, team, or organization realize progress.
You can further encourage accountability by showcasing employees' accomplishments, either privately with them or organization-wide, depending on the person. Setting the expectation that varying degrees of progress will be recognized helps create a culture of positivity that will encourage employees to remain consistently accountable, and might even spark a little healthy competition.
3. Encourage a focus on quality, not quantity.
So often we see people valued by numbers--how many or how much--and in many cases, this is an appropriate metric. But when managers take a tallying approach to employee performance and accountability, there can be a tendency to paint with too broad a brush. Scientifically speaking, this isn't helpful. As a team of neuroscientists explains it, labeling someone with a number triggers their "fight or flight" response, impairing judgment, prompting a hasty or aggressive response, and reducing the likelihood of any productive conversation from which an employee can learn and grow.
When I first started as CEO, and they showed me the forms to fill out about my team's performance, and they wanted me to put numbers in boxes, I thought, Why would anyone do this? I decided to simply ask people, "How do you feel things went?" -- and they would often be harder on themselves than I would have. I would ask, "What do you need from me?" -- and they would tell me. It seemed like a much more human approach to holding people accountable.
4. Create a culture of unity and support.
Prioritize your employees' dignity. Constant monitoring and judgment that comes without any actionable intent can feel intrusive and intimidating, and can negatively impact performance--not to mention cause resentment. When employees don't feel trusted or supported, they're negatively motivated by the fear of consequences. This can cause productivity, engagement, and--you guessed it--accountability to suffer.
On the other end of the spectrum, employees who do feel trusted have been found to put in more effort and perform at levels higher than what's required of them. Promoting open, honest, judgment-free communication is a great way to nurture trust. By showing employees you are committed to their success and not to documenting their shortcomings, they are more inclined to be open about their inadequacies and welcoming of help and guidance.