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Creating Employee Accountability

A young african american woman standing with her arms crossed.

A lot of leadership development is focused on the qualities or characteristics required to be a great leader. All this does is focus leaders on themselves, often resulting in an egocentric approach. The emphasis should not be on leaders but on the environment they create.

Many managers fear entrusting employees with the responsibility of defining their own success and determining how to reach it through their performance. As a result, managers attempt to hold people accountable by insisting on compliance with policies and procedures, establishing goals and performance standards for employees, or offering incentives in an attempt to motivate people to comply. The research does not support this fear. Employees who are trusted and given more say over how they do their jobs are more engaged, more committed and more productive. And, people who know that their managers trust them to be responsible do not want to disappoint their managers.

The primary fear employees have about being held accountable is that there will be negative consequences if they don't succeed, perhaps even the loss of their job. It is safer for them to avoid risk by doing just what they are told. They need to know that they will get the support they need to do their best and that mistakes will be treated as learning experiences, rather than as opportunities for blame and punishment.

The foundation of a responsibility-based culture is a high level of trust. When trust between management and employees is high, the following occur:

  • Information is exchanged freely, feelings and opinions are openly discussed, and people do not harbor hidden agendas.
  • Expectations are clear, disagreements are discussed and resolved, and individual performance is discussed and agreed on without the need for a formal process.
  • Differences are valued, employees feel respected for their contribution and have input into how the organization can be more successful.
  • People keep their commitments, strive for excellence in everything they do and can count on each other for support.

The most important factor in building trust with employees is to understand that being trustworthy does not mean your employees will trust you. You have to earn it. There are four behaviors, called the "elements of trust," that must be present for trust to develop:

1. Congruence. People see you as congruent when they know that what you say is on track with what you believe and what you know to be true and is aligned with what you do. Sometimes managers attempt to sugarcoat bad news, or they are so "gentle" that the real message is not fully communicated. But in the long run that approach doesn't work. Even if you are temporarily able to smooth over a rough situation or take the pain out of an unpleasant encounter, sooner or later it will catch up and trust will be diminished or destroyed.

2. Openness. People tend to cooperate with people who will level with them and give them the whole story, even though some of the details may be a bit unpleasant. If you discover a change of plans that affects other people or you are displeased with their work results, tell them first. If there has been a delivery delay, tell your clients first. They will respect and trust you more for your openness. You'll also be perceived as a straight-shooter, and people will want to perform for you.

3. Acceptance. All people want to be accepted for who they are, not judged, criticized or made to feel inferior. It isn't always easy for managers to do that. You're in your position because you're competent, know the company and know what can and can't be done. It's easy to give the impression to others that they are slightly stupid or inadequate for not understanding as much about the company, department or project as you do. Acceptance doesn't mean that you have to accept poor performance or unacceptable behavior, but there is a difference between judging a person for who he is and judging what he does.

4. Reliability. People want to know if you do what you say you will do. Don't make promises you can't keep, even if you think it will get the job done for you now or appease an angry situation. In the long run it will hurt you. Do what you say you will do, and if you can't or won't do it, don't say you will.


Keith Ayers is a consultant and speaker on organizational culture. As CEO of Integro Leadership Institute, he has worked with executive teams across the globe. For more information, go to


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