Accountability – aka, effectively handling the “control” aspect of management – is a surprisingly pervasive problem in business. I recently came across a couple of data points that highlighted this problem, and made me give thought to ways organizations and individual managers could systematically improve it.
First, the data. In a study in Harvard Business Review, 46 percent of high-level managers were rated poorly on the measure, “Holds people accountable – firm when they don’t deliver.” A second study, this one from Towers Watson, noted that 24% of companies responding to their survey awarded bonuses to employees “who fail to meet even the lowest possible performance ranking.” Net-net, the macro-level picture isn’t a pretty one, showing a significant number of managers not holding employees sufficiently accountable and a significant number of companies rewarding employees when they don’t perform. An unfortunate combination from a management standpoint. Accordingly, for frustrated CEOs and senior managers, here are five suggestions on how to improve accountability in your organization.
Eliminate dysfunctional compensation policies – This is an easy one. Review your organization’s incentive comp policies and make sure that they are in fact doing what they’re intended to. Nearly one-quarter of companies paying bonuses to failing performers, as in the Towers Watson study? Ludicrous. I managed for over two decades in an incentive comp environment, with comp plan features changing with some frequency – but never once were failing performers bonused. All that does is reward behavior you don’t want to reward while potentially demoralizing those doing excellent work.
Make annual objective-setting a serious business function, not a bureaucratic exercise – Too many managers (and I saw a considerable amount of this over my own career) regard annual employee objective-setting as a tedious bureaucratic exercise rather than important business. If the standards by which performance is to be measured aren’t well-conceived and clear, how can managers hope to hold people accountable to high levels of productivity? Bringing rigor to the objective-setting process is a solid foundation to build on.
Make candid evaluations a priority – This is the payoff to well-planned employee objectives. If these objectives are meaningful and measurable, then managing becomes a great deal easier – a rational not emotional process. Are the clear and agreed-upon standards being met? Excellent. But if they’re not – and this should be easy to determine, given well-designed standards – well, that’s a problem that needs to be candidly addressed. Different organizations, of course, have different employee evaluation arrangements. But it doesn’t really matter if evaluations are formal or informal… annual, semi-annual or quarterly… so long as employees’ objectives are clear. Then management has a readily available yardstick for accountability, a measuring tool to make evaluations a fact-based, not emotion-driven, discussion.
Make the avoidance of “conflict avoidance” a priority – In short, teach managers how to manage. Management involves conflict, and holding people accountable involves conflict. That’s why so many managers prefer to avoid it: It’s easier. Interpersonal conflict can be nasty and unpleasant. Unfortunately, dealing with it effectively is part of management. When managers are trained to face conflict and work to resolve it constructively, rather than looking the other way and avoiding it, that too becomes a key element of accountability.
Model the behavior yourself – When leaders are visibly holding their own direct reports accountable, this sends a powerful leading-by-example message to the rest of the organization. There are no favorites here. This is how the game is played. If senior management is doing it, then we certainly should too…
Improving accountability in an organization is complex process, not something done by flipping a switch. But it can be accomplished over time by building a management infrastructure that supports it. Sound compensation policies, results-driven standards, and managers with integrity who are trained to confront difficult issues head-on are all part of a culture that values accountability – and therefore productivity. The title of the Harvard Business Review study noted above is One Out of Every Two Managers Is Terrible at Accountability. That’s a strong statement and a huge problem. Addressing that problem is a worthy management goal.