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Unlocking the Power of Accountability With Your Employees

Employees with ownership and clear expectations from above always perform better. Here's how to foster accountability.
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For both small and large organizations, success often boils down to one characteristic – people taking accountability. This means that employees, even of entrepreneurial firms, need to make minute-by-minute choices without burdensome levels of bureaucratic interference from business owners.

In small businesses (florist, dry cleaner, law practice or pizza franchise) owners are usually on premises and handle the bulk of customer and supplier interactions. But as those same businesses start to grow, the people hired become the face -- and the reputation -- of the business. In many ways profitability and ultimately our viability depends on them.

Unfortunately, too many employees still relate to their jobs with an antiquated frame of reference – a place to go for a specified amount of time to get paid for performing a set of tasks. This mindset was sufficient when jobs consisted of “pick this up, take it over there and put it in that box.” But today, nearly every job requires employees to interact with internal or external customers and make choices that have financial or reputational impact, and being oriented around merely fulfilling tasks is wholly inadequate.

Consider the example of a neighborhood service station I recently visited. After filling my tank, I went to use the restroom. To my pleasant surprise, the facilities were spotless, well-stocked and crisp smelling.

“I take pride in my washrooms as they represent us,” said the attendant, after I complimented him on their clean state.

“How long have you owned the gas station?” I asked.

“I just work here – I’m not the owner,” he said. “But I like it when customers are very satisfied.”

Needless to say, I have returned several times to that service station – even though the prices are a little higher than others nearby.

This interaction made me think about what drives that employee. I imagine the owner asked him to be friendly to customers and keep the area clean. But he has taken ownership in ways that go beyond merely following instructions. He has added that magical ingredient, which provides a differential level of service and customer experience.

Accountability is a phenomenon that cannot be mandated – even saying “You are accountable for this…” doesn’t ensure someone feels ownership. Incentives, while helpful, can backfire; people may stop chasing the objective when they have reached their success threshold, or unproductive competition between employees can fester.

So while accountability cannot be mandated, it can be cultivated. It begins by hiring people who identify with your mission and desired team culture.

Secondly, you need to ensure people understand that you are asking them to own outcomes, not activities. You want the person who sweeps the floors at your hair salon to take ownership for the floor being clean, not for the activity of sweeping. If he finds a better way to ensure the floors are clean – and does so in ways that improve client satisfaction and increase your bottom line – that’s the real prize. You want people to stop paying attention to the amount of time they spend doing things, and pay attention to the ultimate outcome desired.

When people are accountable, they stop watching the clock; they seek 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.