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Why workplace accountability fails – and how to fix it


If your staff aren’t high-fiving each other in the hallways, perhaps something’s gone awry in your KPIs.

By Barbara Selmer Hansen17 minute read

It’s natural for people managers to want to be liked and to create a fun, engaging work environment. This not only boosts morale and culture but also makes work enjoyable. However, the introduction of “accountability” into work conversations can have different implications for different managers depending on their respective personalities. Some will have no issues managing the process with their staff, while others will be completely out of their comfort zone and avoid it altogether.

There are numerous reasons why managers might struggle with implementing accountability, but there are also strategies that can make it successful. This article will delve into both.


What does accountability mean?

All too often it’s assumed that staff understand the concept of accountability and how it relates to them in their current roles. But that’s where a lot of organisations go wrong. How are team members meant to succeed if they don’t understand their key performance indicators (KPIs), how their performance will be measured, what timelines they are working towards and what tools they will be given to assist them?

Organisations too often blame the staff member but don’t often take the time to reflect on their own failings, which is a critical mistake.

Accountability as part of culture

If your organisation has never held staff accountable before, introducing the concept and tying it into things like performance reviews and bonuses can be difficult to sell to existing team members – especially if it’s communicated poorly and no one understands why it’s needed all of a sudden. It can affect staff morale and negatively impact organisational culture, which then creates larger issues that can take a long time to resolve.

Lack of people/manager training

The next problem with holding staff accountable is often the managers themselves. Do they have the skills to facilitate a difficult conversation or to regularly coach staff who are underperforming? This type of communication is a skill in itself, which means that managers also need to know how to handle conflict as well as performance management.

The easy route is to ignore the issues, as many do, but all that does is postpone the inevitable which typically only makes things worse and can ultimately affect team morale. There are also additional challenges if managers have friendships with their staff – again something that is common but difficult to manage.

The blame game

Who hasn’t witnessed a blame game in their professional life? Most have and it’s a quick and very effective way to shift the focus away from accountability. If the team member couldn’t do their job because of x, y, z, then all of sudden it’s game over for poor old accountability. But in reality, it’s simply a distraction and deflects away from issues that need addressing. In life and business, there are always distractions or reasons why projects can’t be completed on time, on budget or at all, but the focus has to be on finding solutions to problems, learning and planning so that the same issue doesn’t reoccur.


Perhaps the biggest challenge is inconsistency in the way managers handle accountability within their respective teams. If some walk the walk and talk the talk while others don’t, it’s a problem. This is also the quickest and most impactful way to divide team members and whole departments. If it’s clear that some team members are not performing and not being held accountable, it makes a mockery of what accountability is meant to represent.

With the above points in mind, it’s not impossible to hold team members accountable but like most concepts, it has to be managed carefully in a consistent manner, with equal opportunities to learn and adapt. Introducing the following key initiatives may help:

Explain accountability and how exactly it relates to individual team members.

While most working in a business environment have heard the word accountability and will know what it means, educating them on how it will impact them and their contributions won’t necessarily be easy. Each department will have its own part to play in progressing the organisation, and each will have its own KPIs and indicators of performance (how the KPIs will be measured and achieved), broken down to each individual team member depending on their role.

Managers should first meet with their teams and explain the goals of the business (a snapshot of the strategic plan), how their performance ties into that plan and what will be required of them in terms of KPIs and overall conduct. Managers should also explain what tasks their staff will need to complete to achieve their KPIs, by when and with what resources.

It has to be broken down into simple terms so that there is less chance of misunderstanding. Furthermore, managers need to understand how best to communicate this information and how often to follow up, taking into consideration that their staff will have different learning styles and possible language barriers.

It’s also critical that team members are given the opportunity to ask questions, reflect and ask further clarifying questions if needed. If there’s a chance that staff may have misunderstood what “accountability” looks like for them, it could severely impact their performance.

The key is to set up staff for success, not failure. 

Critically as well – what happens if staff fail to meet their KPIs, what are the consequences? What support is there if any for underperforming staff? These points are all part of the important conversation around “accountability”. Organisations must also address points relating to decision making and choices so that team members understand that their actions have consequences and will be addressed (i.e.: bullying staff or poor reliability) as part of accountability. In essence, it’s the process of managing expectations, so everyone is clear on what’s expected.

Understand the difference between stretch targets and impossible targets.

Most staff who have had KPIs for a while understand that stretch targets are a good way to stay motivated and if they have a good manager, they will also understand why the targets were put in place based on historical data, market research and specific discussions.

Impossible targets or perceived impossible targets are another thing altogether. If there is no evidence to suggest that the KPI has ever been achieved before or anything remotely close to it, staff disengage quickly. To get buy-in and motivate staff, it’s always best to start off with realistic targets and then move to stretch targets once they know that realistic targets have been achieved. It keeps staff motivated, especially if there is a bonus or possible pay increase tied to successful achievement of KPIs.

Understand the importance of consistent management training and implement it.

Not all managers are equal and just because managers have been given the title, does not automatically mean that they can effectively lead and manage people. It’s a skill, one that has to be developed over time. All managers should be taught how to keep their staff accountable according to what the organisation expects. This means that managers should:

  • Participate in company management training. The purpose of this is to ensure that people managers have a consistent approach to applying workplace policies and procedures, fostering a strong culture within their teams and how accountability needs to be managed, etc.
  • Understand how to communicate effectively. Understand their teams, and how to be transparent, collaborative, clear, concise, etc. This in itself may not be needed for all managers but for some, if they need it, it will become obvious. If it does, that manager should be taught how to communicate more effectively.
  • Be able to handle challenging conversations and conflict with fair outcomes. These skills can safeguard a positive outcome and reset expectations.
  • Manage underperformance and overperformance (how to identify staff who may be ready for promotions or additional “special projects”).
  • Maintain professional boundaries to navigate important issues such as having friendships with subordinates, playing favourites, etc.

Monitor and fine-tune as needed.

Just because an organisation introduces “accountability” doesn’t mean that everyone will be on board initially and high-fiving each other in the hallways. It’s a process that takes time to manage and ongoing communication will be key to its success, as will fine-tuning if it’s required.

It won’t work if there’s a perceived “us and them” approach. Everyone has to play by the same rules (regardless of rank). If there are questions, address them. If there’s resistance, acknowledge it, address it and understand that it’s normal. Take the time to monitor how everyone is progressing and if certain staff members are losing sight of what they need to do, remind them and fine-tune their KPIs if necessary.

Don’t let staff slip back into their old “unaccountable ways” just because it’s easy. It’s something that all people managers will need to facilitate with their teams in conjunction with the senior executive team and HR. It’s effective internal communication at its best.

If managed correctly accountability can have a profoundly positive impact on organisations, particularly in terms of tangible outcomes. But importantly, it can also create a work environment where everyone feels valued, heard and supported, which will ultimately have a very strong impact on culture.

Barbara Selmer Hansen is the director of Impact Business Consulting.

Why workplace accountability fails – and how to fix it
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