In the absence of clearly defined objectives and standards many staff are left to make assumptions and guess what is expected of them in their role.
Even when staff are given a job description, it often doesn’t align well with what they’re expected to do day-to-day. One Gallup survey indicated that only 41% of staff strongly agree that their job description aligns well with the work they do. Not only is there a lack of role clarity, less than 50% of staff are then held accountable for their performance. What this represents to leaders and organisations more broadly is a missed opportunity.
The challenge is, without assuming a command and control style of leadership (which is direct and impersonal – and widely frowned upon) many leaders don’t know how to effectively set expectations and manage the performance of their staff. As a result, accountability conversations become hard and challenging and often just don’t happen.
For HR professionals, this is experienced when supporting leaders through Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) processes with their staff. Often the PIP process is the only time a leader explicitly holds their staff accountable, but at this point, the relationship often deteriorates rapidly, and trust is eroded.
There is an opportunity, prior to the PIP stage, where leaders could be coached to develop their own style of leadership that balances the focus on people with a focus on results and holds staff accountable to their commitments.
READ: How to Build an Environment Where Teams Thrive and Talent Wins
The first step for a leader to hold their team accountable is to set expectations upfront. They are responsible for being clear on objectives or expected outcomes from the very beginning.
If leaders haven’t set expectations, they can’t give feedback on something they simply ‘assume’ others should know. Setting expectations includes outlining the desired outcome, the rules of engagement and the level or empowerment and authority they have.
Agree on a time frame for completion & gain commitment
Along with setting expectations on what is required a leader should give staff a time frame for completion. Without a timeframe, nothing is ever ‘not done’ – it’s simply ‘not done yet’. The timeframe must be mutually agreeable, and leaders need to differentiate a solid ‘yes’ from a hesitant ‘yeah, that should be okay’ or ‘I’ll try’ or ‘okay, I’ll see what I can do’.
A hesitant commitment may indicate concerns about other priorities, the timeframe or the task itself so leaders would benefit, at this stage, from asking questions to understand any deeper challenges staff may have.
Openly discuss why
It helps for staff to know ‘why’ they need to complete a task, not only for context but also in order to understand the impact on the broader business if it’s not done. Where a staff member, hasn’t followed through on their commitments in the past, their leader could focus on consequences at this point. They might ask ‘what might happen if you miss this deadline?’, which empowers staff to take responsibility and consider downstream impacts.
The accountability conversation
It may help to look at accountability from the perspective of commitment. Peter Bregman, in his HBR article see’s accountability as “not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. It’s not a confession. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks.”
The conversation itself is then just a discussion around what was committed to and what was delivered. A leader would refer to the initial conversation where the expectations were set, and the agreement made. Then they would ask, ‘what happened?’, ‘what needs to happen now?’ and ‘what support do you need from me?’.
It’s important to make the conversation as open and supportive as possible. The key intention for having this conversation is to get staff to come to their own realisations about how they approached the task.
Consistency is key with accountability! Often leaders will ‘let things slide’ because they see it as being insignificant – this couldn’t be further from the truth. Mike Ditka, an ex-American footballer, coach and commentator, famously said “in life, you get what you tolerate”.
Every time they excuse behaviour or inaction, they’re accepting it; therefore, it will continue. By having ‘accountability conversations’ regularly, staff will learn very quickly the importance of managing expectations and accountability conversations will be less frequent.
Holding others accountable doesn’t have to be hard or challenging. Like the HR function, accountability is like the glue that holds a business together. It’s a way to calibrate on what is being said and done and adjust – where necessary. Setting it up right from the beginning makes a difference.