Certain species of bamboo trees in Southeast Asia grow less than an inch in four years, but in their fifth year will grow over a hundred feet. A root system develops below the surface that enables the plant to support its enormous growth in that fifth year.
All systems, whether they are bamboo trees or employee accountability systems, require solid roots to be both enduring and regenerative. Far too many employee accountability and performance management programs don’t have a strong, established root system. Tasks are assigned to employees in a haphazard way, hoping that the worker will “figure it out” and deliver an adequate, even superior, performance. Alternatively, I observe rigid, bureaucratic performance review systems that are demeaning and disconnected from the needs of the human spirit. If either of these are your accountability process, you will soon realize that hope, rigidity, or bureaucracy are not very effective strategies for holding people accountable.
An effective, engaging, and enduring employee accountability process must grow from good roots. After helping organizations develop accountability for more than two decades, I have found seven key principles that form strong roots of accountability.
1) Clarity. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. People need pristine clarity about what is expected of them in terms of operational results and behaviors. Whenever possible, write down what you expect from each other. Visibility drives clarity. But the most important thing to be clear about is the results expected. If it’s in your area, function, or project, you are accountable. Accountability – the ability to be counted on – is about making a promise to deliver results.
2) Provide Meaning. Accountability without passion is drudgery. Employees nowadays rightfully expect that work will be invigorating and meaningful. It’s much easier to hold someone accountable when you have helped them identify the vision of the organization, how their contribution helps realize that vision, and how their passion and role is critical. Unleashing the potential of your organization and your employees is far more important than some bureaucratic emphasis on ‘keeping people accountable.’ Accountability is a means to a higher end. If you can’t clarify what that end is, you’ll get compliance at best, and, at worst, burn people out. Accountability has to be authentic and meaningful.
3) Agreements. A request is not an agreement. Clear expectations must be followed up with a mutually decided upon agreement. Every request needs a question, “Can I count on you to meet my expectation?” Be sure the person you are holding accountable has the resources, the capability, and the willingness to come through. And… before you say ‘yes’ to a request, be sure that you have the resources, capability, and the willingness to honor your agreement. Don’t ever make a promise you aren’t prepared to keep.
4) Support. Accountability without support is destructive pressure. To be sustainable, every agreement must come with support requirements. Whenever you expect something from someone, it is vital to ask how you can support them. Support requirements make the accountability agreement mutual and respectful. Accountability must shift from a parental relationship to a partnering relationship.
5) Connection. Accountability without connection is compliance. In the age of the internet, everybody is communicating, but few are actually connecting. You can’t hold employees accountable by emailing them your expectations. You have to get out of the office, get in front them, and make the connection. Connection is about listening, supporting, and being genuinely interested. You’ll have a hard time holding anyone accountable for long if they don’t believe you care – not just about the results they produce, but also about who they are as a person.
6) Consequences. Accountability without consequences is meaningless. But consequences are not the same as punishment. Consequences are the result of delivering – or not delivering – on your agreements. If you do what you say you are going to do, there are positive consequences. If you fail to do what you agreed to, there are negative consequences. It’s important to negotiate and clarify consequences as early as possible in the agreement process. Consequences are the key motivators to accountability. Be sure to explore both the internal and external consequences of honoring your agreements.
7) Follow up. What is the required follow up? How often – and when – do you need to meet to ensure the accountabilities to each other are met? These are vital questions in the accountability process.
You might have noticed that the fundamental principles that form the roots of an effective accountability process with others are also the principles that underlie accountability agreements with yourself. When keeping agreements with others or yourself, or holding others to account, be sure to take the time to ensure good roots.