It’s Time to Overhaul Our Understanding of Accountability

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Your employees are more than a number. Their strengths and challenges are unique, yet forced accountability often neglects that.

Few buzzwords are more cringeworthy than “accountability.” While it stands to reason that employees should be held accountable for the contributions they make (or don’t make) to an organization’s performance, most people roll their eyes knowing that what it actually means is, “Who gets blamed when things go sideways?”

Unfortunately, most employee accountability efforts have historically taken on a forced nature that doesn’t actually generate the desired outcomes—nor does it engender good feelings among your employees.

When accountability feels forced and arbitrary, it can easily backfire, creating tensions between workers and management.

In fact, research from Gallup reveals that a mere 20 percent of employees feel “their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.” Only 21 percent feel that their performance metrics—what often define accountability—are actually within their control.

When accountability feels forced and arbitrary, it can easily backfire, creating tensions between workers and management. Instead, leaders should embrace a more holistic approach of encouraging accountability. The findings of my 15-year longitudinal study of more than 3,200 leaders on organizational honesty for my book, To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice and Purposeproves why: When accountability systems are viewed as fair and dignified, you are four times more likely to have people be honest with you.

The Trouble With Score-Focused Accountability Systems

Far too many companies emphasize score-based accountability systems, where employees are essentially “graded” for a variety of work-related attributes. While this may seem like it can give a good “big-picture” idea of how an employee is performing, these systems often do more harm than good.

Similar problems are easily apparent in education, where accountability efforts have largely taken the form of standardized testing. These efforts have not delivered on goals like improving teacher evaluations or improving student test scores. Most notably, the complications and shortcomings of these systems have actually caused parents to lose faith in the educational system as a whole.

In this case, the issue is that the accountability system doesn’t really do much besides offer a score. But who is ultimately accountable for that score? It remains unclear whether the testing is designed to measure the effectiveness of students, teachers, or the state of education as a whole. A single scoring metric is inadequate for addressing a variety of potential challenges.

The same issue rings true in the workplace. Your employees are more than a number. Their strengths and challenges are unique, yet forced accountability often neglects that.

Tiffany A. Archer is a recognized thought leader in the arena of ethics. “Everyone knows performance can be very subjective,” she told me. “So, when you try and make a quantitative assessment of qualitative work, then put a number to it so it appears ‘objective,’ then try and call it fair, you’re asking for trouble. I don’t believe such processes work to do anything but demotivate people. Peers start anxiously comparing themselves to one another and think, ‘Wait, why did I get a three out of four and they got a four out of four when I stayed later to get the work done? I worked on the most important projects, and he even got reprimanded for not performing. Why should I bother putting out more effort if I’m never going to get the top rating for it?’”

People just become resentful and distrustful, and when that happens, you’ve increased the risk of bad behavior.

Fairness and Transparency Matter

The Harvard Business Review notes that 40 years of psychometric research shows that “people don’t have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as business acumen or assertiveness, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it.” In other words, our own inherent biases, which are colored by our own experiences, can greatly influence the type of feedback we give.

Forced accountability that merely assigns blame can make it hard for employees to gain meaningful insights, especially when the feedback doesn’t line up with their own perceptions. This makes fairness and transparency when encouraging accountability an absolute must.

“Critically evaluating accountability processes in terms of fairness helps restore employee trust,” explained Rajesh Chennattu Sasidharan Nair, assistant general manager at Amazon Pathways, in a recent email conversation. “When people feel like they are being given an arbitrary score, they don’t feel valued or acknowledged. Accountability requires a meaningful, transparent conversation that is open and honest. Ensuring that each team member gets equitable opportunities to succeed and improve build trust in the accountability process.”

Considering whether you set fair expectations for each team member and give them access to the same opportunities can completely reshape your perspective. Establishing fair and equitable processes from the start is key to eliminating arbitrary accountability that undermines trust and culture.

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Make Accountability Solution-Focused

The quality of learning and feedback greatly increase when accountability is focused on the dignity of your workers. This is true, Nair notes, “even in categories like operations and supply chain management, where raw numbers matter.” Accountability should always be solutions-focused—you and the employee coming together to identify meaningful steps for improvement. “A culture where we learn from mistakes, rather than simply assign blame,” Nair says, “makes accountability something everyone will look forward to.”

Solution-focused accountability requires a certain level of humility from leaders. Notably, it entails recognizing that your own shortcomings can be a contributing factor in an employee not meeting expectations with a particular assignment.

This level of accountability also encourages consistent feedback to follow through on agreed-upon solutions. Notably, a surveyof 1,000 full-time employees found that 68 percent of those who felt they received consistent feedback at work also felt fulfilled in their job. 

Solutions-focused accountability communicates to team members that you truly have their best interests in mind, and encourages them to take real ownership of their efforts. This way, accountability takes on more of a mentorship approach, where you are providing the resources and encouragement to help employees do their best.

Approaching Accountability as Restoration

People dread accountability in their organizations because often, when consequences are levied, they can feel shaming and harsh, despite corporate rhetoric about learning from failures. The reflexive response is to hide mistakes or point fingers elsewhere. 

To treat mistakes restoratively, leaders need humility, grace, and patience. They must see any person’s arc of professional success as more than the sum total of any single assignment. Leaders also need the humility to acknowledge their contribution to people’s failures. Did the person have the resources, skills, team support, and realistic timelines to be successful? 

We have a long way to go before accountability within organizations becomes a process where people embrace the opportunity to improve their performance and expand their contributions. Making dignity, fairness, and restoration foundational components of accountability systems is a powerful place to start.

Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.