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Creating an accountable workforce: How to build back better

Accountability is the bedrock of the communities in which we live.

Being held accountable for our actions provides the basis for many political and judicial systems around the globe.

And in the workforce, it plays a key role in creating cohesive teams that deliver quality outcomes.

But in the face of a global pandemic and an increasingly fragmented workforce, there are concerns that accountable teams are in decline. Recent data indicates that 82% of managers have ‘limited or no ability’ to hold others accountable.

In our latest blog, we reflect on why accountability is key in the ‘New World of Work’ and explore how leaders can re-instil this value into the foundation of their teams.

Accountability in the workforce means that employees are responsible for their actions, behaviours and performance. Individuals take ownership of the projects assigned to them, keep commitments to colleagues and use initiative to overcome problems and ensure deadlines are met.

Accountable teams are based on a solid foundation of trust, supported by open communication, transparency between individuals and strong leadership.

These building blocks were tricky to assemble in a pre-pandemic world. But there are fears that the widespread shift to hybrid and remote working has exacerbated these challenges.

Communication in particular has become a critical concern for many organisations, despite the numerous software solutions available. Without a central office to pull team members together under one roof, there is a growing concern that leaders have lost visibility across projects and trust between teams has diminished. Compounding the problem are the functional difficulties created when operating across borders and time zones, as we source from wider talent pools.

As leaders, we urgently need to address the issue of accountability. How we hold ourselves accountable and the ways in which we create a culture of accountability for our teams will be pivotal in enabling organisations to thrive in the new world of work.


Why accountability matters

A candidate-driven market: In the midst of a talent supply shortage, the balance of power has shifted firmly in favour of prospective and current employees.

As we face a ‘scorchingly hot’ job market, leaders need to think beyond financial incentives and consider working styles, company culture and purpose. Individuals are increasingly seeking opportunities that offer greater autonomy, favouring roles that offer scope to work flexibly, make (and learn from) mistakes and hone their skillsets.

Candidates are also evaluating the ESG credentials of organisations. In the new world of work, CEOs are increasingly being held accountable in their pledges to political and societal movements, such as sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion.

The leaders that show empathy, proactively report on progress and commit to long-term, meaningful change will be best placed to attract top talent.

Improving performance, improving profit: Research illustrates how teams with a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability thrive.

As a leader, you need to showcase your investment in the success of the team, encouraging them to hit ambitious project milestones. Your support encourages greater accountability amongst individuals, who are more likely to meet deadlines in the knowledge that one shortfall can ‘snowball’ into bigger problems. This forges trust amongst teams, encouraging communication and collaboration in the face of challenges.

And reliable teams are good news for leaders. Safe in the knowledge that your teams are striving towards clear goals, periodic check-ins can replace micromanaging. Not only does this allow you to refocus your energy into other projects, but it also creates an environment in which trust is mutual, which has far-reaching benefits for both the employer and employee.


How to build accountable teams: Four top tips

1. Connect your team with a clear purpose: A defined purpose acts as a beacon for your teams, creating a culture in which team members know intuitively ‘where they have permission to operate, and where they do not’.

To create accountability between teams, you need to instil this purpose into the core objectives of a project. Then, connect the dots between tasks completed and wider company values.

This alignment answers the ‘why’ behind so many projects - ‘why does it matter’, ‘why am I doing this’, helping you to secure buy-in from a range of stakeholders.

A clear purpose can also aid complex decision making or shape a solution in the face of seemingly endless possibilities. A decision is made not because of rules or long-established procedures, but because it aligns most closely with the values of the organisation. This means that innovative thinking is championed over ‘business-as-usual', ensuring your organisation is best placed to meet changing customer needs.

2. Reimagine your understanding of failure:The organisations that thrive in the new world of work will be those that are agile in their approach, evolving at pace to serve changing customer needs.

To do so, leaders need to find new ways to ‘boost the metabolic rate’ of their organisations. Increasingly, this has meant flattening or flexing corporate infrastructure. Reducing cumbersome layers of management increases the speed with which teams can respond to problems or changes in the environment.

In lieu of a complex company hierarchy, individuals are more accountable for their decisions, including their mistakes.

As a result, leaders need to foster a culture in which failure is an accepted – and even welcomed - part of overall success. This can be achieved by:

  • Building a psychological ‘safe space’: By doing so, you create an environment in which individuals feel more confident taking calculated risks. Individuals who feel ‘safe’ amongst teams are also more likely to request feedback and offer constructive criticism in return.
  • Promoting opportunities for continuous learning and development: Champion the soft skills needed to cope with failure, including problem solving, emotional intelligence and communication
  • Celebrating second place: Projects should be ambitious, pushing individuals to deliver results. As a leader, you need to take the time to praise those who worked hard to get you close to the mark, even if you didn’t ‘make it over the line'

3. Create closed-loop communication: Corporate jargon. We are all guilty of using it, some more than others. After all, it seems more constructive to tell a team to ‘think outside the box’ when faced with a challenge than bluntly request that teams offer a more imaginative solution.

But these much-loved phrases could be preventing the formation of accountable teams.

Stating that a project must be completed to the ‘highest standard’ or requesting that individuals ‘drill down’ into a problem fails to clearly define your expectations. While you may prioritise efficiency in project delivery, others value detail.

A lack of clarity creates accountability gaps. Trust between teams starts to falter as they try to determine the specifics – and who is responsible for delivering them.

To overcome these gaps, we’ve borrowed an idea from the medical world known as ‘closed-loop communication’.

Often used to manage trauma patients, closed-loop communication has been proven to reduce error rates by removing ambiguity from instructions. A dedicated team leader outlines a task and assigns a specific individual to ensure completion. The named individual must acknowledge the request, repeat the instruction and then state when the task has been completed, effectively ‘closing the loop’.

Getting specific with your language creates clear aims for the project, as well as illustrating to your team who is responsible for the different elements and the timescales in which they need to be delivered. Individuals are held accountable to a shared set of expectations, increasing the likelihood of successful project delivery.

4. Recruit the right people: While communicating purpose, establishing clear reporting models and changing your language can offer a strong foundation, individuals must be prepared to meet you halfway in order to create truly accountable teams.

Accountability cannot be manufactured for every employee. So, you need to ensure that the talent that you attract is intrinsically motivated, holding themselves accountable to challenging personal and professional goals.

Your recruitment process will play a fundamental role. Dedicated talent acquisition specialists can help connect, engage and onboard the right people those who believe in your company mission, align with your purpose and are eager to deliver high-quality results.

Once these individuals are embedded within your organisation, you need to take the time to understand what makes them ‘tick’, including:

  • Their preferred communication style: Whether it’s Teams, text or telephone, make sure you understand how individuals would like to engage and how often they feel it is necessary to check-in with you
  • What gets them out of bed in the morning: Each employee will have a distinct set of driving forces. Whether it is career progression or opportunities for learning and development, you need to understand what it is that pushes them towards peak performance, enabling you to build a tailored rewards system
  • Their innate strengths: Managers who understand ‘what comes naturally’ can better position both individuals and teams for success, drawing on a variety of complimentary skillsets to deliver high-quality results


Helping organisations thrive

Wider workforce trends present numerous obstacles to organisations eager to succeed in the new world of work.

But these challenges also represent an opportunity to build back better, forging truly accountable teams that are unhindered by borders, time zones or screens.

Leaders must create a foundation for accountability, outlining a strong purpose and setting clear expectations. However, they must also ensure that they recruit ambitious individuals who will seek to hold themselves accountable, enabling high-performing teams to form and thrive.

Speak to one of our workforce strategy experts to find out how you can attract, recruit and retain top talent.