Accountable employees in two easy steps!!!

February 28, 2012

Everyone else seems to be writing blog posts with these formulaic approaches to complex problems and I was feeling left out…

Alright, on to substance.

Business leaders care a great deal about holding their employees accountable. Or, at least, they say they do. If you’re ever at a corporate offsite and you hear the words “let’s hold each other accountable”, the one thing of which you can be sure is that whatever it was that they supposedly wanted to hold each other accountable for will never be heard of again. “Let’s hold each other accountable” is the polite way of killing an idea or desired outcome.

But surely holding people accountable is a good thing. After all, without accountability nothing gets done. Right? [Hmmm. Do you see what I did there? A bit of foreshadowing…] And, in fact, corporations do have means of holding people accountable. They do this through the mechanisms that dole out rewards – the performance management and reward system. (Note: There are lots of very good reasons to criticize corporate performance management systems. But for now, I’m assuming that they work and criticizing them on other grounds.)

Simply put, the system tells every employee what they will be compensated for. Meet your goals – you get your reward. Exceed your goals – you get an even bigger reward. Fail to meet your goals – you might get fired. BTW, this is precisely why when executives say “let’s hold each other accountable”, nothing happens. Those are the code words used solely for cultural initiatives or objectives – usually related to employee morale or engagement. By saying “let’s hold each other accountable” instead of putting the objective into the performance management and reward system, executives not-so-subtly announce that they do not value the initiative as much as the others that are actually tied to compensation.

But I digress.

The regnant model of accountability makes certain assumptions about human nature and what it takes to make people perform. Some of those assumptions are positive and some are quite dark and pessimistic. A positive assumption: people will perform better the more clearly they understand what is expected of them. A dark assumption: people will only perform if there are sticks and carrots associated with performance.┬áThere might be some truth in these assumptions. But I can’t help feeling that the entire accountability model is childish and not very uplifting. I think we can do better. This model of accountability assumes that in order to get you to do something, someone must shove a finger in your face and say “do this or else.” In a way, it assumes that you don’t want to do the work. The model is trying to fight gravity and as I’ve written, that is usually a foolish effort.

The model is, sadly, probably right.

Most people in corporations don’t want to do the work. Not really. I don’t mean that they’re lazy. I don’t mean that they’re apathetic. No, I mean they don’t really want to do the work for one of two reasons. 1) No leader has helped them see how their work contributes to an important outcome or 2) The work actually doesn’t contribute to anything important or meaningful. In the end, they just don’t believe in it. And people don’t throw themselves into work that they don’t believe in.

We can replace the traditional model of accountability. But in order to do that, we have to be prepared to change not only how we hold people accountable, but also what we hold them accountable for.

So yes, I’m proposing two steps. But I lied above – they aren’t easy.

  1. First, you have to help people believe in the work. If the work you’re asking people to do is truly meaningful then this step is an act of communication. If the work isn’t meaningful then this step is an act of work redesign. (Now be careful here. When I refer to meaningful work I’m not talking about the ultimate end state that your business is trying to create. I’m talking about the actual work – the tasks – you’re asking people to undertake. The work isn’t meaningful simply because you’re a pharmaceutical company and you’re trying to make people healthy. The work isn’t meaningful simply because you’re an entertainment company and you’re trying to make kids happy. Meaningfulness does require an important end state. But it also requires meaningful tasks. If you work at a pharmaceutical company and have to get 16 levels of approval before buying a paper clip then you do not have meaningful work.)
  2. Once people believe in the work, you’re most of the way there. Now you’re not fighting gravity. Instead, gravity is working with you. So the next step is to build mechanisms into the systems of the company that facilitate this meaningful work. People do need to know what outcomes and tasks they are supposed to work on and with whom. They do need to track their progress and see their impact. And yes, they do need to be rewarded. But all of these mechanisms will be designed and implemented in a very different way when the starting assumption is that people truly want to do the work and just need some help rather than an assumption that people want to avoid the work and need to be forced.

So there. Two steps. Give people work they believe in and help them get it done.

Now sit back with an umbrella drink and watch the accountability happen.

In my next post I’ll share with you my easy 4,197 step plan for lying in a hammock and drinking great beer while other people make money and give it to you…

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Claire Farber March 9, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Sounds like you’re talking from experience. Does this mean you’ve been one of the lucky ones who have always believed in and had meaningful work?


Adam March 9, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Claire: I’ve always believed in it but haven’t always had it. In fact, it’s because I’ve been in some bad places that I truly understand and cherish meaningful work. Right now, I’ve got it. And I know what it feels like. This is what work should be like for everyone. And I aim to make it so. One person at a time.


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