How to Build Better Employee Accountability with Processes

According to the American Management Association, one-quarter of workers seem to avoid responsibility on the job on average, and 21% of companies believe that the figure is as high as 30-50%. From these stats, it’s clear that low employee accountability is wasting company money on a massive scale.

At the same time, almost two thirds of employees believe their company does not have a strong culture. The link between these two factors is strong, argues management consultant and author Roger Connors. Connors blends The Wizard of Oz with now-influential writings on employee accountability in a series of best-selling leadership books including The Oz Principle and Change the Culture, Change the Game. In the latter, he says:

“Our experience proves that accountability, done the right way, produces greater transparency and openness, enhanced teamwork and trust, effective communication and dialogue, thorough execution and follow-through, sharper clarity, and a tighter focus on results. Accountability should be the strongest thread that runs through the complex fabric of any organization” — Roger Connors, Change the Culture, Change the Game

To paraphrase Connor, a business’ employee accountability depends on leaders creating a transparent culture where responsibility is clear, transparent, and owned. One way to bring clarity to the way your business operates is to use standardized processes and leverage technology that helps track activity, assign tasks, and facilitate hand-offs.

In this article, we’ll go through the links between processes, accountability and company culture, and give you tips on how to improve your business in those areas. But first, let’s look closely at the ties between accountability and culture.

Why is company culture important to accountability?

A company’s culture is the sum of its attitudes, policies, and personality. Some companies are strict, some give their workers a lot of freedom. Some are hierarchical with many layers of management, while others encourage open channels of communication between departments and positions. The culture sets the tone for the work done, and can have a massive impact on productivity and happiness.

A study into employee engagement conducted by TINYpulse highlighted the importance of culture; it found that coworkers’ lack of follow-through is the #1 job productivity killer. In other words, employees aren’t getting invested in their work because they don’t trust the dedication of their coworkers. This is damaging on two levels. Firstly, teams feel like they can’t rely on each other which creates a toxic and damaging culture. Secondly, this culture fosters a lack of accountability.

According to Partners in Leadership, 91% of employees rank accountability as one of their organization’s top development needs. Translation: employees need their coworkers to be reliable, responsible, and accountable for their work. But there’s an inherent snag with accountability…

The problem with accountability

As a manager, when you’re asking for accountability you’re basically asking your team to do their work out in the open, to be honest, and to take the responsibility to get work done.

For a manager, that level of dedication would be preferable, but for an employee it could come across as micro-management or unfair scrutiny.

Accountability can be encouraged by management, but it can’t be forced. For that reason, many companies like Spotify try to create accountability by first allowing employees a greater degree of autonomy. In a Harvard Business Review article about Spotify’s strategies, Michael Mankins and Eric Garton write:

“Autonomy may be the single most important element for creating engagement in a company. How can anyone feel engaged, let alone inspired, if she feels that some supervisor is always looking over her shoulder? But autonomy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it spurs creativity and involvement. On the other, unchecked autonomy can lead to ambiguity and inefficiencies, even organizational chaos.”

The three challenges Mankins and Garton outline are:

  • Balancing autonomy and accountability
  • Balancing freedom to innovate versus following proven routines
  • Balancing alignment with control

In the next part of this article, we’ll look at how you can set up and deploy processes which empower your team while keeping them accountable.

How exactly do processes help you improve accountability?

Empowering your team to modify or create the processes they use gives a sense of ownership

According to Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, “giving [employees] ownership of ideas, a team of people, or a product can dramatically improve their sense of engagement in and happiness with their jobs, and their productivity as well”. By collaborating with your team to develop processes based on their tested methods, you’re both helping to improve your team’s consistency and giving them ownership over the way they work.

An LRN study authored in 2014 found that businesses with employees that display a “high level of freedom” are 10-20 times more likely to outperform those with low freedom scores. Allowing the freedom to choose tools and processes gives employees ownership of their work. It makes them feel proud of the output, listened to, and like they’re working for a flexible company rather than a tyrannical one.

At Process Street, we personally document regular processes like sales qualification, screening interviews, and marketing launches. We record our methods the first time we do a task, and then work together to find ways to enhance the process and get it as efficient as possible. This gives us a sense of ownership over our work because we aren’t just getting work done because it was mandated, we’re working with processes we designed as a team.

Processes make it clear who is assigned what

(Excerpt from source)

Part of making your team accountable is identifying who is responsible for which tasks, projects, and outcomes. If this is unclear or too diffuse, it’s common for each member to privately believe someone else is responsible instead. This is due to a phenomenon known as bystander effect.

As summed up by Matt Simmons, bystander effect states that “any potential responsibility for something that happens in the presence of a crowd is diffused over the entire crowd”. By assigning set duties to named team members, you turn that murky concept of team responsibility into something much more clear-cut.

With Process Street, you can do this with task assignments. In the image below, you can see two team members with clearly assigned tasks:

When the tasks are due, they are delivered through Process Street’s inbox and an email notification so everybody’s on the same page. Structuring your processes in this way puts and end to the “it’s somebody else’s task/problem/job” attitude, and makes your team accountable for executing their part of the process.

Processes make the flow of work obvious

Every time a document changes hands, there’s a chance it’ll be lost. Whether that’s buried in an email inbox, accidentally marked as read, or simply forgotten about, hand-offs can sometimes feel like gaping black holes for information and accountability.

This might be a familiar situation: the writer doesn’t start until the designer finishes the layout, the designer is waiting on approval from the team lead, and the team lead missed the Slack notification. That’s a recipe for delays, and possibly project abandonment. It’s easily done, and is responsible for low accountability for two reasons:

  1. Tasks and projects are rarely finished, which is demotivating for the team involved
  2. Losing work becomes normal, lowering the team’s accountability to its members and leaders

To fix this, you need to make sure that every task has a clear next action, and that there’s a standardized, gap-free system for notifying collaborators. We built Process Street to help facilitate hand-offs between individuals, teams, and departments. For example, checklists can have required fields which prevent the user from marking a task as complete until they’ve attached a document, gotten approval, or fulfilled some sort of criteria.

Checklists can also have stop tasks which prevent a user from progressing to the next task until the previous are complete; this helps you enforce the order work is done and control when employees are notified.

Process software can generate reports and hold activity logs

When a team is working in the dark and not keeping records of activity, it’s very easy to slip. What feels like a few missed deadlines here and there might turn into a huge problem in the long term, and it wouldn’t even show up on the radar. All you’d know is that you’re doing something wrong, and no one would be accountable for it. A team should have a clear idea of their output, their results, and how this ties together with their KPIs.

For example, we have a process for building backlinks which involves emailing guest post pitches to companies with blogs, managing communication, delivering the content, and following up until publication. If this wasn’t tracked, it’d be impossible to judge how effective your efforts are. How many backlinks is guest posting generating per month? Are there any holes in the process, or missed deadlines? With this knowledge, you can then attribute the outcome (backlinks) to the inputs (writing, emailing, following up) and make improvements where necessary.

To track our team’s progress across the guest posting campaign, we use a custom Process Street template that runs automatically each time I tag a pitch inside Gmail. As I work through it, Process Street records who completed the task at what time and stores that data for me to export. Guest posting is a process that we all need to be accountable for, and being able to see the detailed activity and status of each pitch makes accountability automatic.

How to deploy the processes you need to improve accountability

Improving accountability is bigger than it sounds. It’s the process of bringing about a cultural change. For this to work without generating confusion, it needs communication, transparency, and collaboration.

“Confusion kills the momentum of any culture change effort because no one feels confident about which direction to move.” — Roger Connors, Change the Culture, Change the Game

Assuming that what Connor has written about in his seminal work on accountability is true, an accountability culture can be created by changing the way you work so it’s more collaborative, transparent, and results-driven. You can set the wheels in motion by improving processes one-by-one — either as an outside manager, a team leader, business analyst, or an individual within the team itself.

To start, you need to ask yourself a set of questions: which processes — documented or not — seem like a black box to you? What do you find difficult to measure, or what feels like it’s slipping?

Take a look at our post on change management for advice on easing the transition from an old process to a new one. It includes many helpful frameworks, like Lewin’s.

Recently, we overhauled our blog post production process. We did it because we are scaling the team and need a way to communicate the requirements of a blog post to a new hire, as well as make the graphic design process transparent between the writer and designer.

We assigned steps of the process to specific team members, and use Process Street’s inbox feature to facilitate hand-offs. As well as this, we set up automation to make the hand-offs easier; every time a new blog post is being created, the specifications the writer records for the images are automatically sent to a Slack channel which notifies the designer.

Roughly, this is how we developed and deployed the process in a way that included the team and ensured accountability.

  1. Single out one process being used by one team
  2. Meet with the team to get a picture of what’s being done now, and to get data on how well it is performing
  3. Explain the gap between the desired results and the current results.
  4. Collaboratively improve the process, giving team members ownership over developing and optimizing the process as well as the relevant steps of the process itself.
  5. Run the pilot process, ensuring the team is on board with it.
  6. Meet again to evaluate early progress and iteratively improve the process. Get everyone involved with their own experiences of using it, and their beliefs on how it could be better.
  7. Assess the results after everyone has participated for a reasonable amount of time

Not only does participation and ownership improve accountability, it also makes the quality of the processes you build together higher, and useful to the whole team rather than just the process creator.

I hope this post has been helpful as an introduction to improving accountability with processes. Any experiences or thoughts to share? Let’s chat in the comments.

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