Cultivating Accountability in the Workplace


Accountability is one of the most important aspects of any business. A company that holds its employees accountable for the choices they make and the tasks they perform witnesses high levels of productivity and efficiency.

In a startup too, a shared sense of accountability among employees makes all the difference in how they approach their day-to-day tasks. Unfortunately, accountability is most often driven by a fear of punishment or retribution—if you don’t perform to expectations, you could get fired. This fear-based approach may get the job done, but it certainly doesn’t lead to employee satisfaction and fulfillment.

For accountability to be effective, it must be fostered, not forced. How do you do that? You could start off by asking yourself a few questions:

1. Are organizational roles, responsibilities, and goals clearly defined?

Recently, I was forwarded an internal e-mail chain that started off with a simple request to three colleagues asking which one of them could copy some software onto a disc and send it to our business partner. Forty-eight hours, eight mails, and eight recipients later, no one was any closer to getting an answer. Mails flew back and forth questioning why the software needed to be copied, what the background of the situation was, and who should or shouldn’t be responsible for the task. In the process, productivity was lowered. It was a clear example of how important it is to clearly define roles and responsibilities.

If your employees don’t understand what their role is and what is expected of them, they will not feel comfortable accepting ownership and accountability. At Apple, every single initiative or task has a “Directly Responsible Individual” or DRI who is in charge of seeing that particular task through to completion. So, there’s no confusion as to who is accountable for what and when.

A good way to cultivate this kind of accountability in a startup is to make sure that before people leave a meeting it is clear who will accomplish what and by when. Also, set specific goals with clear deadlines. Or go one step further and encourage employees to set their own goals—this can be a great motivator for them.

Equally important, align individual goals with organizational goals. Perhaps you’re looking to achieve a particular sales target or an increase in customer satisfaction. Whatever the goal, make sure that employees know exactly how their work contributes towards it. That’s when they’ll feel a sense of accountability to the business.

2. Are your employees empowered to achieve their goals?

In a large organization with hundreds or thousands of employees across the world, it can be difficult to cultivate a culture of empowerment. But in a startup, it’s much easier and also more critical. When you trust your employees with a certain amount of flexibility and freedom, you make them happier and more fulfilled, which, in turn, helps them feel more comfortable and willing to take ownership of projects and initiatives.

No doubt, it’s difficult to determine how much freedom and autonomy to grant your employees. But to start off, make sure that you hire employees who demonstrate trustworthiness and integrity. That builds a workplace environment where everyone can trust each other to do what they say they are going to do.

Secondly, establish a system of rewards and incentives. If certain employees complete projects well and on time, make sure that they are recognized, valued, and encouraged. As a bootstrapped startup, you may not be able to offer over-the-top rewards, but you can at least laud an employee’s efforts in a company forum. The key is to let employees know that their efforts are appreciated.

If employees don’t do what they were empowered to do, you have to address it and make it clear that there are consequences.  But remember that punishment only creates fear, and prevents people from taking ownership for their actions. Instead, sit with the employees, analyze the reasons for their under-performance, and glean lessons that can then help the whole organization improve.

3. Are you monitoring and measuring accountability?

PCWorld reports how David Bloom, CEO of tech startup, keeps track of his employees, one of whom works remotely. Bloom uses Google Hangouts video chats to connect with all his employees for a 15-minute face-to-face meeting every morning. Each employee logs in separately to talk about what they’ve accomplished and what they’re working on.

This is a great way to keep employees accountable for their work especially in a startup where the number of employees is low and the CEO can connect with all of them.

Another way to foster accountability is to encourage or require short reports on key areas of responsibility, to be sent not just to their managers, but to both managers and peers across the organization.  This drives transparency on actions taken as well as performance progress.  At MetricStream my direct reports send out weekly status e-mails to me and their peers.  These e-mails keep the team on the same page and reinforce clarity of ownership and accountability for the areas reported on. Issues are quickly highlighted if progress is off track or not up to standards.  These reports also help peers understand where help is needed so the team as a whole can be successful.

Cultivating accountability across the organization requires managers to take specific actions.  Employees need to clearly understand their role in the company and what they are responsible for accomplishing. Managers need to define expectations up front and reinforce them periodically within the context of the business and ensure their employees are empowered to do what is expected.  Arming employees with that understanding, combined with monitoring their progress and fostering transparency across the organization, will reinforce the culture of accountability and enable it to thrive.

Shellye Archambeau is CEO of MetricStream, a Palo Alto, CA-based company offering governance, risk, compliance, and quality management solutions to enterprises in the pharmaceutical, medical device, high tech manufacturing, energy, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, food and beverage, and automotive industries. Follow @metricstream

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