Creating a Culture of Accountability

March 10, 2022 John Hester


The hybrid/virtual work world presents many challenges for leaders. One of them is creating a culture of accountability.

Some leaders still think accountability equals “butts in seats.” But that outdated belief has become completely antiquated during the pandemic. People have proven they can succeed in a remote work environment.

Considering how quickly the workplace is evolving, creating a culture of accountability requires leaders to develop a new skill set. Here are things you can do to achieve this.

Psychological Safety is Essential

Accountability starts with psychological safety. People need to feel comfortable telling their leaders that they are struggling with an assignment without fear of being reprimanded. An atmosphere of trust is essential.

An environment that isn’t psychologically safe undermines a culture of accountability. If leaders don’t trust their people, they’ll micromanage them. If people don’t trust their leaders, they won’t share.

Leaders lay the groundwork for accountability by extending trust. This can be more difficult in a virtual environment where they may not be able to see someone’s body language. Then there are some leaders who are habitually cautious. They won’t trust their team members until their leaders demonstrate that they are trustworthy.

Considering our times, leaders must take extra steps to ensure their people feel psychologically safe.

Praise Often. Redirect Judiciously.

Accountability and engagement are interdependent. One way to create engagement is to praise your people when they do something well.

Most leaders believe they give their people plenty of praise. But research shows the opposite—people don’t think their leaders praise them enough. The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio is 5:1. We’ve evolved as a species to identify danger, so we are wired to dwell on the negative. When leaders criticize, it stings more than they might think. A generous amount of praise is needed to counteract this natural tendency.

How we give feedback should be even more nuanced. I recommend leaders use our SLII® leadership development model to determine what kind of praise will be most impactful.

When someone is new to a task and either an Enthusiastic Beginner or a Disillusioned Learner, it’s your job as a leader to recognize any progress the person is making. Celebrate progress. Praise them in front of the team. Confidence is a prerequisite for mastery, and by recognizing people’s victories you’ll help them develop the self-confidence needed to tackle even more difficult projects.

When someone has demonstratable skills and is either a Capable but Cautious Contributor or a Self-Reliant Achiever, giving them increasing autonomy will deepen accountability. The person has proven they can do the task and you want to recognize and reward their achievements. As they become more experienced, your job is to ask open-ended questions and listen to their responses. Be explicit about how proud you are that they have reached this level of expertise.

No matter who you are sharing feedback with, your mindset as a leader is critical. Never act in a way that can be interpreted as punitive or demeaning. Make sure your people know that your purpose is to help them win. This helps to maintain a culture of accountability.

SMART Goals Create Accountability

Everyone is more accountable when they have SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). People need to know what is expected of them and SMART goals can keep them on track. You can help your people attain their goals by showing them what success looks like for a specific job. This is particularly critical when you’re not in a face-to-face setting.

Regular check-ins are also a part of helping people achieve their SMART goals. If you and your team members are in the same place, you should have one-on-one check-ins at least once every two weeks. If your team is virtual, check in with each person more often—at least once a week. People working in a virtual environment need this. It ensures alignment, prevents feelings of isolation, and creates accountability.

Know Your Digital Body Language

Our digital body language, which is revealed in all our communications, affects accountability. The words we use reveal our intentions, our attitudes, and our feelings. But we often don’t take enough time to make sure we are understood. In fact, emotions in emails are misunderstood a great deal of the time. We need to be much more intentional about what we say and how we say it.

Try to make sure your communications aren’t just transactional if you want to drive accountability. Every communication should have a human element to it to demonstrate that you care for your people.

Here’s a tip I learned from experience. Don’t ever send a text message or an email without reading it through several times. Ask yourself, “Am I clearly saying what I want to say? Am I sharing my position and the thinking behind that position?” Doing these things helps ensure you have effective digital body language, which creates the psychological safety needed for accountability.

Be Available

Your availability and responsiveness are key to creating an environment of accountability. They are even more important in a virtual or hybrid environment than in a face-to-face workplace. People can see what you’re doing when you share a workspace, so they know when you’re busy. In a virtual environment, we don’t have this information and can come to any conclusion. For example, if you don’t respond to an email in three or four hours, the trust people have in you may take a hit, which can affect accountability.

One way to prevent these kinds of miscommunications is to set norms with your team. For example, discuss what constitutes a timely response. Get clear agreement and have everyone abide by it.

Good Leaders Create Accountability

Our changing workplace requires new ways of creating a culture of accountability—especially when so many leaders and their people are no longer in the same workspace. But the use of good leadership skills will inspire people to be accountable. And when that happens, your team will reach new heights of success!


About the Author

John Hester

John Hester is a senior consulting partner with Blanchard®. His focus is on the practical application of leadership development tools, skills, and models in both individual and organizational settings. John holds a master’s degree in adult education from Oregon State University and a bachelor’s degree in business information management from Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

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