Management is defined as the attainment of organizational goals in an efficient and effective manner through planning, organizing, leading, and controlling organizational resources. A manager’s success is based on the performance of the department, people, and function for which they are responsible.

Much has been written on the value of finding the right people for the job, communicating and reinforcing our core values to our employees, and celebrating successes. In previous articles I have discussed the importance of creating and communicating a short-term business plan, clarifying members’ roles and responsibilities through up-to-date descriptions, and connecting the two through appropriate metrics and clear expectations for performance. These are, indeed, all vital steps that set the stage for success and continued profitable growth.

However, even if the above are in place, achievement of both organization-wide and individual goals is still in jeopardy without the critical element of accountability. Holding people accountable is the most important aspect of a manager’s job. The thread of accountability runs through all aspects of business and is at the heart of both achieving the firm’s objectives, and helping our people be as engaged and personally successful as they can be.

Understanding what role an employee plays in your organization—what the purpose of their position is and what responsibilities they hold—is a necessary starting point. What is equally critical is explaining what your expectationsare for the employee, and then holding them accountable for meeting those expectations.

A project or production manager is responsible for seeing that jobs are completed on time, at or under budget, and in a way that meets or exceeds the customer’s expectations. Assuming the position is ultimately responsible for managing technicians and other direct labor, your expectations for that position might include:

  • Manage $1 million in projects during the current year.
  • Meet target gross profit of 70% on mitigation and 48% on rebuild jobs.
  • Add two qualified subcontractors for flooring and tile work.
  • Ensure all production vehicles are cleaned and maintained, properly stocked at all times, and that all equipment is accounted for—within budget constraints.

These expectations are more specific than what would be included in a job description. They provide details on the type and level of performance that is expected during the current period of time—typically a calendar year. They are linked to and support the achievement of broader objectives for the organization that are contained in the business plan. 

The business development rep is responsible for maintaining existing customers, developing relationships, and increasing revenue for the organization. Your expectations of them may look something like:

  • Make 200 route calls on insurance agents every month.
  • Add four plumbing contractors to our referral program.
  • Sign eight additional Emergency Response Plan customers.

Once expectations have been set, you are ready to hold employees accountable. In order to do so, you have to be able to track their actual performance relative to the established expectations. You also need to have formal conversations with them on a regular basis to review how they are performing, learn what obstacles are keeping them from achieving what is expected, and determine how you can help them to be successful. Remember, as leaders and managers our job is to help our people—and therefore the organization as a whole—reach their goals.

Processes for holding employees accountable also need to be put into place. For example, monthly operations meetings should be held to review job profitability, revenue vs. forecast, and progress on developing the vendor base, among other topics. Weekly sales meetings should be held to review sales and marketing activity, revenue being generated, and progress in gaining commitment from new customers.

Accountability, however, goes beyond meeting objectives or targets established as part of a business plan. It encompasses the entire scope of an employee’s job performance. Technicians, for example, are expected to perform their work according to industry and company standards, and meet quality expectations, all at defined levels of efficiency. They are also expected to, and must be held accountable for, being on time for work, maintaining company tools and equipment, dressing appropriately, documenting their time and work accurately, and in many cases, cleaning and restocking company vehicles after each shift.

Financial and accounting employees, while being held to some of the same expectations, such as being on time for work, are held to different accountabilities. For example, they are expected to complete all transactions in a timely and accurate manner, generate reports on time, and calculate payrolls accurately and on time, every time.

Failing to hold your employees accountable puts into motion a set of consequences that often leads to deteriorating performance and loss of customers, along with the inability to retain the high-quality employees that are the life blood and the future of your business.

Generally speaking, the idea that overall performance is enhanced in an environment where individuals are being held accountable stems from the belief that it is a natural human reaction that when we know someone is tracking our performance and our output, we will try to perform to the best of our abilities. A lack of accountability results in employees doing what they see fit and working only as hard as they want. Those who are more self-motivated and have a stronger work ethic will perform better and work harder.

Other employees will take advantage of the lack of control, as evidenced by their attendance, appearance, quality and pace of work, etc. The resulting lack of consistency ultimately causes the higher performers to question why they are always “carrying the load” and, more importantly, whether they want to continue to work in such an environment. The organization now spends more time fixing the results of the poor performance it tolerates, becoming less efficient. The culture inevitably deteriorates to an environment of placing blame for mistakes and poor service.

Inconsistent accountability—holding some employees accountable, but not others—produces equally destructive results. Claims of favoritism destroy motivation and dedication. One department or function that is being held appropriately accountable looks upon another area of the organization where management is ineffective as either an area that is holding the whole firm back or as the place they would prefer to work. The ultimate cost of applying accountability on an inconsistent basis is the risk of being vulnerable to a wrongful termination lawsuit in cases where you dismiss an employee.

Accountability is also about consequences. While regular communication, reminders, audits, and generally “keeping score” are a necessary part of accountability, so is the understanding that repeated instances of someone not adequately performing their job has consequences. A progressive disciplinary policy is designed for exactly that reason. Performance shortfalls, along with actions contrary to written company policies, are subject to disciplinary action. These disciplinary actions are designed to reinforce to employees that the actions (or lack thereof) in question are not acceptable and repeated occurrence will result in progressively higher levels of discipline, up to and including termination.

It is not my intention to advise you to base your employee’s accountabilities on the ultimate threat that they will be terminated. The “carrot” is much more effective, in my experience, than the “stick.” However, the fact remains that there will be employees who are not adequately motivated by positive reinforcement and the need for the “stick” will be present.

When approached correctly, accountability can produce positive, valuable results including improved performance, higher employee morale, more employee participation, and increased commitment to work.

These positive results occur when employees view accountability as a helpful and progressive method of assigning and completing work. Arguments for practicing constructive accountability are overwhelming. In his book, The Accountability Revolution, Mark Samuel says “accountability means people can count on one another to keep performance commitments and communication agreements.”

In short, it is easy to envision how an organization operating without accountability will deteriorate into an unprofitable, unhappy place to work with unsatisfied customers and frustrated employees. Helping employees succeed results in higher levels of commitment to the organization and that drives higher levels of performance for the business overall.

Good employees and managers want to be held accountable and want to be part of an organization where others are, too. When people are accountable, they stop watching the clock. They look for ways to make improvements and take initiative to change what doesn’t work. They ask for opportunities to do and learn more so they can be successful at fulfilling their purpose, which in the end, gives a boost to yours.