Accountability is a frustrating topic for many leaders and business owners. Despite careful hiring practices, well-designed employment policies, and digital monitoring, accountability remains puzzling. Why do some employees take accountability for their actions and others don't? When lacking, company performance and culture suffer. When done right, accountability leads to better outcomes. Holding others accountable isn't easy, but it significantly impacts your leadership and business results. An organizational culture of accountability is architected. It doesn't just happen. Here are five psychological levers for creating workplace accountability and making it a part of your company culture.
Why employee accountability matters
A recent CEO benchmarking report found that nearly one in five CEOs surveyed identified holding others accountable as their greatest weakness and almost as many struggled with letting go of underperformers. Holding employees accountable is difficult for leaders, even when they are responsible to others for business results.
Employee accountability - an expectation that an employee may be called on to explain an action or inaction to others with the belief of a consequence based on an evaluation.
In a toxic culture without accountability, employees ignore, deny, blame and play the victim. Evidence from various studies links employee accountability to:
“When people feel accountable and included, it is more fun.” – Alan Mulally
5 Levers of Accountability
Researchers have found that in the workplace, these five psychological dimensions affect accountability:
Accountability Lever 1: Attribution
When others know who did it—the more personal, explicit, and unambiguous a task, the greater the attribution accountability. When employees expect their actions and decisions can or might be linked directly to them, and leaders know their name, they are more likely to take accountability. Evidence suggests clear standards and expectations increase attribution accountability. Make job descriptions and performance expectations more explicit.
Idea: Develop meaningful relationships with your team members.
Accountability Lever 2: Observation
In a culture of observation accountability, employees expect their behaviors and judgments to be observed by their leader, peers, followers, and others. As the audience size increases, employees' observation accountability increases because they feel more likely to be observed.
Idea: Emphasize transparency and increase the visibility of individual work.
“The best kind of accountability on a team is peer-to-peer. Peer pressure is more efficient and effective than going to the leader, anonymously complaining, and having them stop what they are doing to intervene.” – Patrick Lencioni.
Accountability Lever 3: Evaluation
Feedback is provided for actions and judgments, and the ability exists to be compared to others. Employees that expect performance to be reviewed feel more evaluation accountability. Additionally, when the evaluation outcomes are variable, it increases evaluation accountability.
Idea: Reviewer status increases evaluation accountability. Include a second level (i.e., the leader's leader) review of formal performance evaluations.
Accountability Lever 4: Obligation
Having to explain an action or the way a decision is made and its effect on the well-being of others. Employees who expect to answer for their actions feel an increased obligation accountability.
Idea: Reporting to multiple leaders or customers increases obligation accountability. Use performance calibration meetings with other leaders at the same level to increase visibility to talent across the organization and performance visibility.
Accountability Lever 5: Consequential
Employees working in effective accountability systems expect their actions to be linked to good or bad consequences. Consequences and rewards involve extrinsic (ex., earning a bonus or avoiding a negative) and intrinsic attributes (ex., personal satisfaction or enjoyment). According to equity theory, employees are motivated when rewards are fair as compared to others.
Idea: Involve employees in defining rewards and recognition systems and defining levels of expectation for tasks.
"When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice." Brené Brown
Does your company or team have a culture of accountability?
The following validated survey by Han and Perry can be used by leaders to understand employee accountability better within a team or across an organization. Have employees anonymously indicate their degree of agreement or disagreement with the following statements using a seven-point scale from 1 (Strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
What I do is noticed by others in my organization.
If I make a mistake, I will be caught.
I am constantly watched to see if I follow my organization's policies and procedures.
Anyone outside my organization can tell whether I'm doing well.
My errors can be easily spotted outside my organization.
People outside my organization are interested in my job performance.
The outcomes of my work are rigorously evaluated.
My work efforts are rigorously evaluated.
I expect to receive frequent feedback from my supervisor.
I could not quickly avoid making a false statement to justify my performance.
I am constantly required to follow strict organizational policies or procedures.
I am not allowed to make excuses to avoid blame in my organization.
If I perform well, I will be rewarded.
Reasonable effort on my part will ultimately be rewarded.
If I do my job well, my organization will benefit from it
Each question aligns with one of the five levers of accountability. The higher the score, the higher the dimension of accountability.
Attribution Accountability (Q1-3)
Observation Accountability (Q4-6)
Evaluation Accountability (Q7-9)
Obligation Accountability (Q10-12)
Consequential Accountability (Q13-15)
Consider using this survey before and after taking steps to improve the team and organizational accountability. Measurement improves focus and tracks progress over time.
Holding employees accountable isn't easy, but it significantly impacts your leadership and business results.
What is your real challenge in building a culture of employee accountability?
Connors, R., Smith, T., & Hickman, C. (2010). The Oz Principle: Getting results through individual and organizational accountability. Prentice Hall.
Han, Y., & Perry, J. (2020). Conceptual bases of employee accountability: A psychological approach, perspectives on public management and governance, 3:4, 288–304
Han, Y., & Perry, J. (2020). Employee accountability: development of a multidimensional scale, International Public Management Journal, 23:2, 224-251.
Howard, S. (2019). Holding employees accountable: where most leaders fail. Predictive Index.