4 Proven Ways to Improve Employee Accountability in the Workplace

Improve Employee Accountability in the Workplace

It’s not always easy to know whether your team is doing everything you ask them to. How do you know everything is on track? Are you sure your team is taking care of every responsibility?

Here’s the worrying thing:

According to the American Management Association, 21% of companies believe that 30-50% of their employees shirk from their responsibilities. This is stupidly high. So, we need to see how it can be resolved and take action right now.

Accountability in the workplace, in short, refers to your team members taking responsibility for their actions and for the tasks they’ve been assigned.

In this post, I’m going to cover 4 key areas which pertain to managing the accountability of employees:

  • Communication and company culture
  • Productivity
  • Clear processes and workflows
  • Oversight

When managing a team, you’ll have your own approach to leadership and to scrutiny. Some people are hands-on micromanagers who keep continually updated and monitor all activity. Others are more hands off and provide their employees with space to operate and make their own decisions.

Which path you take depends on you and depends on the specific roles of the employees you manage, but we’ll attempt to provide you with a series of resources to help you either way!

Employee accountability is a matter of life or death

One of the earliest studies of employee accountability in the field of management studies is Peter Drucker‘s 1967 The Effective Executive.

It is the duty of the executive to remove ruthlessly anyone—and especially any manager—who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a man stay on corrupts the others.

Drucker tracks the changes in management philosophy within the Army from the 40s through to the 60s. The general at the time was George C. Marshall who ascended to the position of chief of staff of the army on the day World War II broke out in Europe and is now best remembered for his key involvement in the Marshall Plan – an economic trophy for a military man.

George C Marshall Employee Accountability

What he isn’t as publically known for is his crucial role in turning the United States into a military superpower. The forefront of Marshall’s strategy was having the correct people in the correct places. Inadequacy would not be tolerated. By the time the United States had entered the war, Marshall had dismissed 600 officers. Marshall focused instead on promoting ambitious young military leaders, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, and running them through rigorous tests.

Bernard Lewis, who served as an intelligence officer for the British army later wrote of the American troops:

what was really new and original—and this is my second lasting impression—was the speed with which they recognized [their] mistakes, and devised and applied the means to correct them. This was beyond anything in our experience.

Ricks, writing for the Harvard Business Review, argues that the qualities which made the US army extraordinary faded very quickly in post-WWII conflicts. He tells the story of General Ridgeway who was sent to Korea to turn the fate of the war around. Ridgeway writes in the Military Review:

The troops were confused. They had been badly handled tactically, logistically.

The reasons behind this demise are myriad, but two prominent reasons were officers being given positions on the back of WWII, whether deserving or not, and the intention of giving large numbers of new officers experience in the event of a ground war with the USSR. Ridgeway implemented the Marshall strategy and relieved many of the officers serving in Korea at that time. The strategy worked and the war began to turn around, but the political backlash against replacing generals so aggressively resulted in this strategy being abandoned post-Korea.

Ricks argues that this key moment led to a change in how the army operated and which generals were able to rise up the chain of command leading to unsuccessful future conflicts:

It is not overstating the case to say that America’s doomed venture [in Vietnam] grew in part out of the army’s search for a mission in the mid-1950s.

Many of these underlying problems were remedied with the army went through the move from conscription to recruitment in the 1980s, but the generals were still not subject to the same rigorous standards. As Lieutenant Colonel Suzanne Nielsen wrote for the Army War College in 2010:

The Army attained tactical and operational excellence but failed to develop leaders well-suited to helping political leaders attain strategic success.

Ricks concludes:

Excellent talent management is vital to any organization. As business leaders look to the U.S. military for lessons, they will find many positive ones. The army knows how to produce a well-trained, highly motivated, and extremely diverse workforce. But business should also heed the negative lesson the military teaches about leadership and strategy.

If this can happen to the greatest military superpower the world has ever seen, then poor employee accountability can seriously damage your business too. So, how do we build structures to aid employee accountability in modern businesses?

Build a company culture around communication

Keeping up strong lines of communication is important in every facet of management.

Whether you contact someone every half hour by approaching their desk or you only have a weekly skype call, how you execute your communication strategy will have an effect on the level of engagement and focus of your employee and affect the standard of work they produce.

Michael DeFranco, founder and CEO of Lua writing for The Next Web, describes how they use communication to tackle employee accountability:

I’m a firm believer that this workplace problem is solvable by ensuring channel and message alignment. For example, email, while distributed and somewhat magical, is not the right channel for a question where a word or two will suffice. It’s also not the best channel to send a message for which you need an answer stat.

DeFranco recommends Slack as one of the tools to keep your business running smoothly. Slack has largely cornered the team communication niche and is growing rapidly, landing a valuation of $3.8bn and launching its own fund to accelerate third party development of bots and apps on its platform.
trello slack employee accountability
We use Slack within our team here at Process Street and, for me, it achieves 3 key things:

  1. It allows for everyone to be easily contactable whether they’re on their computer or on mobile, in an individual message or a group one.
  2. In doing so, it keeps transparency within the company high. You can always see what others are up to and what pressing concerns or decisions are occurring.
  3. Because all team communication is happening within my Slack channels, my email has become usable again. I can now process my emails properly rather than having to spend forever sorting through them.

By maintaining regular contact and fostering transparency through the technology you employ, it’s much easier to create a company culture which is centered around openness and togetherness.

The nature of open team communication also helps us encourage peer learning. Cultivating an environment where employees feel comfortable – and are encouraged to be – asking questions has resulted in learning curves which are shortened so fewer mistakes are made. Pasting work – or the Trello card for that work – into a Slack channel for team review adds an extra layer of eyes to review processes resulting in greater scrutiny and higher quality.

Excellent company communication encourages accountability through participation and facilitates accountability by making targets and requirements clearer.

Help your employees boost their productivity

For employees to be accountable to the company, they have to be able to be accountable to themselves.

An employee is more likely to hit their targets and accomplish all they’ve been asked if they’re working with strong personal workflows and high productivity. The prospect of corner-cutting is greatly increased if work is being completed in a last-minute panic.

There are two central elements to getting work done. One is structural and related to the workflows within the company, and the other is personal and relies on individual accountability.

According to Dr Jones, writing for SuperhumanEntrepreneur, the first step in boosting productivity is health:

If you’re feeling tired, lacking energy or finding that you are experiencing an afternoon slump each day then you wont be reaching your potential performance level and are likely not being as productive as you could be. Energy levels have a massive impact on productivity and so prioritizing your health is a vital first step to increase productivity.

Encouraging good health in your business is important, but it’s also useful to recommend productivity techniques which can help your team accomplish more. Depending on the nature of the tasks, certain productivity techniques – like the Pomodoro technique – could be beneficial to increasing focus and output. While I’m writing, I avoid going in a Pomodoro direction, opting instead for larger chunks of time. However, in a previous life when I worked in Sales, I found the ’25 minutes on 5 minutes off’ structure of this method to be a great way to maintain high-intensity bursts.
Focus employee accountability
When it comes to tools which can help you implement this system, Pomello is a good option. Pomello integrates a timer with Trello so that sections of 25-minute bursts are hooked up to your tasks directly. It allows you to tie together your productivity structures and your task management.

Another tool used by a couple of members of our team is Focus@will. This one’s all about ambiance. Focus@will has a broad selection of themed playlists you can choose to play while you work. They’re all engineered to provide you with lyric-free background music conducive to focusing and blocking out distractions.

This is just a small sample of the myriad of tools available on the market for improving personal productivity and you can find more productivity tools here.

Making sure your team members are able to work at the pace necessary to get work done in the company is the first step to encouraging accountability in following the stated processes and workflows they need to operate by.

Processes and workflows make every task clear

As DeFranco explained, at the core of employee accountability from a manager’s perspective lies clear communication of what you want from your employees.

We’ve looked at how communication in general terms can function within a business. But communication of specific tasks requires something more than the occasional chat. Implementing strong processes and workflows across your team is the easiest and fastest way to make sure all employees understand what they should be doing and when.

If you want employees to be accountable, lay out the various items they are accountable for in the clearest terms possible. Kevin Daum, writing for Inc, explains how he makes sure each set of tasks he allocates to employees are fully documented on paper so that everything is clear and nothing is missed:

Include space on the page for a timeline, motivation and consequence. Make sure the action steps are clearly spelled out and put a space for resources required and questions to be answered. Leave nothing to chance and remove all excuses.

Fortunately, there are now better tools than pen and paper to create these easy to follow processes with our favorite being (obviously) Process Street – our workflow automation tool.

Process Street Workflows

In a technical sense, the difference between a process and a workflow is that a process is a series of related tasks to complete a certain goal, and a workflow is the combination of processes with resources and materials – including staff.

A process might list the various steps I carry out when I come to write an article like this one. It starts off with researching, then writing, then editing, formatting the article. I could break it down further into more detailed tasks, like in this pre-publish checklist linked below:

However, if we were to break this process up into sections and allocate those sections to different people, we would have a workflow. The writing section can be done by me, the formatting can be done by a junior editor, and the final approval and publishing – along with sending out to our mailing list – can be done by a senior editor.

Whenever I publish an article I’m expected to deliver on a number of specific things. One little detail might be that all deep links in the article open in a new tab. I normally just insert a target=”_blank” in the link tag. This is a specific small task which I am accountable for. How do we make sure that I, and all others who write with Process Street, are accountable for that?

In our internal pre-publish checklist, we have a specific task dedicated to checking every link. Every link. Does it work? Is it pointing where you want it to point? Does it look right on the page? Does it open in a new tab? Check, check, check and check.

Having a clear process which we run every time we come to publish an article forces us to hold ourselves accountable even before someone else does.

And you can’t say you missed it or forgot.

Because that would mean you didn’t follow the process.

Your job is to follow the process.

Oversight lets you double check progress

According to Hiba Amin, as a manager, you always need to be the final approval point to make sure employees are held accountable. You holding them accountable will lead to them holding themselves accountable.

With the blog article example given above, we can see a number of stages where moments of accountability occur.

Firstly, there will be peer review where writers meet to discuss the development of their work and their ideas, conferring with each other in order to improve their work.

Second, there will be the submission of a draft for review to check the article is heading in the right direction and receive approval.

Thirdly, there will be the presentation of a final finished version of the article for ultimate approval prior to publishing.

These are different areas of the larger workflow within which the pre-publish process sits.

This workflow is designed in such a way as to build review and accountability into itself. The individual writing the article is accountable for their work with clear deadlines and well-documented processes to follow. The broader team are accountable for not just their own work, but providing that the work of their colleagues is also up to a reasonable standard. The manager is given multiple occasions to hold each individual accountable as part of this communication workflow.

Accountability can be built into workflows in this way as workflows and processes are optimized.
Template overview employee accountability
Further to this, every system benefits from a backup. Within Process Street, the prepublish checklist run on an article has an overview section – above – which documents what checklists have been run, by whom, and what was checked off as completed within the checklist.

This reporting gives a manager the ability to look deeper into an employee’s work, if they choose, to gain a clearer understanding of what has been done and when. This use of monitoring through technology brings an element of the panopticon into the process, encouraging workers to hold themselves accountable as they know their progress can be scrutinized at any time.

If you really want to go further in this direction, there are multiple task tracking tools like Toggl or TimeDoctor which track employees’ activity and screenshot their work at intervals to make sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing.

Processes hold people accountable

Ultimately, the convergence point between oversight, communication, and productivity lies within the process.

  • A well-constructed process breaks a larger task down into manageable chunks and sets out a clear path to follow. This boosts productivity.
  • A well-constructed process is good practice in communication as it explains expectations to an employee and ties them to other workers when included in a clearly documented workflow.
  • A well-constructed process provides oversight throughout as it ties work directly to expectations and includes peer review in its flow.

How you structure your business to accommodate for employee accountability is up to you. The details of your process will represent your idiosyncrasies as a manager.

With a strong process in place, you can provide both a support structure around your employee and a reasonable level of autonomy at the same time.

How do you manage employee accountability in your business? Let us know in the comments how you’ve handled different experiences!

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Adam Henshall

I manage the content for Process Street and dabble in other projects inc language exchange app Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, my current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h on Twitter. Subscribe to my email newsletter here on Substack: Trust The Process. Or come join the conversation on Reddit at r/ProcessManagement.

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