Why Accountability is the Most Important Skill to Coach (and Learn)

High performance starts with a culture of accountability 

Over the last several years, some major trends have given rise to a greater need for individual accountability. First, many organizations have opted to flatten the hierarchy, with fewer levels of management coupled with the philosophy that employees should be empowered to make more decisions and control how they work.

Additionally, more organizations are relying on freelancers and contractors to play key roles, and while some organizations still try to micromanage those contributors, most realize it’s not the smartest way to hold on to talent who has grown accustomed to doing their own thing. Finally, and perhaps most notably, is a shift to work from home. Even prior to 2020, increasingly organizations were enabling workers to telecommute, at least partially, and some organizations operate entirely virtually. The sheer nature of remote work requires implicit trust in staff to do the work they’re supposed to do.

Yet, when leaders, ranging from team leaders up to the C-suite, talk about the challenges they face, a lack of accountability is often a chief concern. They want employees to “take ownership,” “use more initiative,” and “own up to their mistakes” and with good reason. When an organization develops a culture of accountability, great things happen:

  • Productivity rises
  • Trust grows
  • Employee motivation, engagement and job satisfaction increases
  • Work quality improves
  • Compliance issues, lawsuits and penalties decline

All those changes can have a profound positive impact on the bottom line, so developing accountability should be a top priority for leaders at every level. The problem is that leaders often don’t model accountability themselves.

Signs you have an accountability problem

Take an honest look at both your employees and your own behavior. Are these behaviors the norm?

  • Procrastination. People delay work or ignore problems because they don’t want to be held responsible for the outcome.
  • Leaders have to set all plans in action. Employees don’t do anything without a direct order from a superior.
  • Employees don’t share ideas. Because they don’t want to be responsible for executing the idea—or blamed for the failure of it—they don’t speak up.
  • Finger pointing occurs often. Employees are quick to make up an excuse or blame the circumstances, another department or someone else for mistakes or failures.
  • Employees complain. They resist change and focus mostly on how everything affects them.

Some of that behavior will always occur, no matter how much you do. However, if it’s rampant, as a leader, you likely aren’t doing enough to foster accountability within your team.

Increase accountability among your staff

Bolstering employees’ accountability involves building their confidence and empowering them to make decisions and take actions that are in the best interest of the organization—without being told to do so. Here are some tips to help you do both:

  • Reinforce your corporate vision. Tie everything your employees do back to the team goals and mission. Then tie everything the team does to the organization’s goals and mission. When employees understand how their day-to-day actions help the organization, it gives their work purpose.
  • Be crystal clear about the desired results. Employees should understand, without a doubt, what the expectations are for tasks, goals, and general performance and behavior. Explain exactly what you want and confirm their understanding.
  • Involve employees in setting goals. Collaborate with employees to set goals that impact them. If you simply set the goals for them, they will be less likely to take ownership of them. However, when they have a direct say in the goals, they are more likely to find them meaningful, and that increases the likelihood that they will hit them.
  • Provide the tools they need to do their jobs. Whether that is knowledge, skills, time, resources or training, make sure they have everything they need to meet the requirements of the job and your expectations. Regularly ask, “What do you need from me to be successful?” and provide them what they need.
  • Don’t micromanage them. Once you set achievable goals and offer them the tools needed to hit those goals, step away and give them authority and space to do their jobs the best way they see fit. Not everyone works like you, nor do employees need to. While you should monitor progress and step in when you see performance slip, trust your employees to get the job done. That can be tremendously empowering and give them the confidence to tackle problems without your input.
  • Set some boundaries. Let employees know when you trust them fully to make a decision and when you need to be involved. If you have been a micromanager, that is going to take some work on your part, but with each decision you back away from and each time you empower them, you build their confidence and ability—and you free your time to focus on work that truly should involve you.
  • Accept failure. Yes, there will always be those employees who won’t take responsibility for their actions or lack thereof. However, when that behavior is widespread, it’s typically the result of poor leadership. Leaders who are authoritarian and who criticize, embarrass and punish employees when they fall short, breed this kind of behavior. If you blow up whenever anyone messes up, they will start hiding their mistakes and look for any excuse to avoid “getting in trouble.”
  • Draw the line. If after all that, employees are still refusing to take responsibility, start addressing it in both informal and formal performance discussions. If the behavior starts to reflect poorly on them—and ultimately impacts merit-based pay increases and promotions—they’ll likely begin to take it very seriously.

Most important: Model accountability

Here’s the thing, if you place blame and don’t own up to your own mistakes, your employees will follow your lead. Make sure you are modeling the behavior you want to see. Not sure what that looks like? Jackson Schmidt Consulting can help. Learn more.