accountability at work

How to improve accountability in the workplace in 5 steps

Sometimes managers will let employees avoid accountability at work because they dislike confrontation. But a lack of individual accountability is bad all around.

It’s bad for the employees who likely know they aren’t performing well. For instance, a salesperson will probably know he is the only one who didn’t meet his sales goal. Without the encouragement and push to improve, he may feel ignored, discouraged and devalued, which may lead him to quit.

A lack of accountability at work sends a message to the rest of your staff that lower standards are OK. The team may begin to resent the low-performing employee and his or her manager because they have to shoulder more work to make up for their teammate’s deficiencies.

And if you don’t address the problem employee, the team may perceive it as favoritism or weakness, which can be demotivating for everyone.

But you can turn this trend around. Here’s how you can make sure everyone on your team is pulling their weight equally.

1. Have the difficult conversation

While holding employees accountable may sound confrontational, it doesn’t have to be. Just remember to focus on the performance, not the person. Assume that most people genuinely want to do a good job and aren’t being difficult on purpose.

Start with a specific example: “John, I noticed that XX happened. What’s your perspective of what went wrong here?”

Throughout your conversation, seek to understand why certain actions were taken or tasks were performed. Examples include: “Can you walk me through the process you followed here?” or “Did you experience a technical issue we need to fix?” or “Would it help if I sat in on your next meeting?”

Employees may not understand how their behavior affects other team members. Other common reasons for inadequate performance:

  • The manager didn’t give clear instructions
  • Extra training is needed
  • There’s a technical issue
  • A personal issue is seeping into work
  • Conflicting priorities

2. Address the poor performance as soon as possible

Deal with the individual one-on-one and as quickly as possible. After all, nothing is likely to change unless you confront the problem. You also don’t want your frustration to build to the breaking point or for an employee’s non-performance to become a big issue.

You need to figure out the why behind the poor performance. This is where you’ll need to find a way to make your leadership style match the situation.

For example, a new employee may just need additional training, while an experienced employee has too much on their plate. A highly conscientious employee may do well with some coaching while a lazybones may respond better to heavy authority. Regardless, you need to be clear about the action or behavior you expect from the employee going forward and have suggestions for how to make that happen.

If you are dealing with a truly bad employee, don’t rely only on verbal communication. Written goals and instructions can help you both remain accountable. As a manager, you will be forced to think through what is really needed for performance to improve, and the employee won’t be able to make the excuse of “I didn’t understand” or “I didn’t know.”

3. Consider your employees’ feelings

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

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

Throughout your conversation, concentrate on maintaining the employee’s self-esteem by showing concern for the individual as well as for the company’s needs.

4. Set SMART goals

When things are busy it may seem like a pain to stop and write down procedures, goals and policies. However, employees need to know what is expected of them in order to perform well and stay motivated.

If you find a consistent lack of accountability at work, it’s likely you need to create some written SMART goals. SMART stands for:

S – Specific

M –Measurable

A –Attainable

R –Relevant

T –Timely

Developing SMART goals are a whole topic in itself, so there’s much more to learn than what is mentioned here. Just know that this tactic leaves little to the imagination and provides clear communication between employee and supervisor.

5. Follow through and follow up

After every conversation, write down what was said. You don’t have to report every issue to HR, but it helps to send an email to yourself and the employee to outline the problem that was addressed, the solutions you both agreed upon and the expectations for future behavior. This helps clarify the conversation for everyone involved, and gives you a paper trail should additional action be necessary.

Finally, follow up with John or Jasmine to see if they are performing as expected. This doesn’t have to be time-consuming. You can stop by the following morning to ask if the employee had any other questions or ideas after a night’s sleep. Then, follow up again in a week or so and ask how things are going. Or, ask the employee to follow up with you after a set amount of time.

You may need to help them make midstream adjustments to reach their goals. Best of all, praise them when you find them doing things right. Nothing encourages great work like focusing on the positive.

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

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