As an adviser to business executives and owners, I often hear discussions about employee accountability, almost always focusing on the negative.

Phrases like “holding people accountable” imply negative consequences or punishment, rather than rewards or providing the freedom and coaching to team members to choose their own actions, and pursue what matters most to them.

I would challenge you to look at accountability from a more positive perspective, as I see in a new book, Uncommon Accountability, by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington. Based on their years of experience as successful executives and productivity consultants, they and I agree that focusing on these key positive elements will more likely get you the accountability you desire:

1. Set clear and high standards of performance.

When I talk with a company’s team members, I’m often surprised at how little they know about its highest values and performance expectations. Your employees need to hear you state the company’s real organizational standards that define success, as well as the non-negotiable behaviors necessary to be a productive part of the team.

Jeff Bezos believes strongly that setting high standards has been the key to Amazon’s success. For example, instead of quick slide presentations, teams at Amazon write six-page memos to lay out ideas in narratives to be read in silence at the start of a meeting.

2. Provide regular feedback on execution and results.

Annual performance reviews are not enough to ensure accountability. We all need weekly, if not daily, informal feedback on direction, and what is working and what is not. Positive feedback should be delivered publicly, but constructive feedback is best delivered in one-on-one sessions.

We have all heard the excuse “not enough time.” But when there is a will, there is a way. Richard Branson, who manages many companies, even provides feedback by walking around the cabin and talking directly to his key staff during his Virgin flights.

3. Highlight every positive performer consequence.

Most team members already know negative consequences, but rarely envision positive ones. It’s up to you to keep all potential consequences in perspective, and don’t apply them as a lever to improve performance. Make sure they are seen as being based on metrics, and belong to the performer.

Something most executives don’t talk about publicly, but should, is how people get selected for a fast path or quick promotion. I know from experience that this process most often focuses on employees who are always accountable, in success or in failure.

4. Foster a team member project ownership culture.

In my experience, team members who take ownership always seem to identify ways to improve their processes and the business in general. They must feel free to make the decisions needed to perform well without getting permission first. Real accountability only comes with decision autonomy.

Another key approach to encouraging ownership is to find ways to have team members work toward shared goals, and put more of their “skin in the game.” Of course, to make this a culture, you have to overtly reward successes, and avoid negative penalties.

5. Build a trust relationship with each team member.

Accepting accountability requires trust, and trust doesn’t come without a relationship. It’s up to you to build that relationship by listening to their needs and concerns, and offering help where you can. Avoid the temptation to provide the “right answers” to team members without seeking their insights.

In today’s environment, with more and more remote and virtual teams, the job is tougher but it’s possible. It’s your challenge to learn how to use social networks and video facilities effectively. Make sure that all your contacts and discussions are not one-way.

6. Provide coaching and training on ownership discipline.

As a leader, coaching is the most effective way to help people manage ownership of their choices and results. The key ownership disciplines that you can help provide include vision, planning, process control, scorekeeping, and use of time. The key is to be available and stay positive.

With these key strategies, you will find that you no longer are tempted to manage accountability by negative consequence, but instead will migrate to the more positive and effective strategy of “holding team members capable.” 

At the same time, the people you depend on will shift from a mindset of “I have to” to “I choose to.” That’s a lot more satisfying and successful for all concerned.

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