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How do you enable accountability without visibility?

I recently attended the CIPD Festival of Work 2019. I like to go along and see who and what is happening in the HR world that might spark some curiosity or impact my current thinking on various client challenges I’m working on.

As I strolled through the aisles of booths and stands, handing out leaflets and freebies, I was taken aback by the sheer number of companies promoting technology-based apps, systems and software that enables the HR profession to track, monitor, analyse and report on various people-related tasks and interventions. These all produce data and analytics to aid decisions deemed necessary in business. There was something pretty much for every aspect of an employee’s life from recruitment through to performance and retirement.

This was balanced with a number of other companies advocating the need for more flexibility and flexible working, agile working, well-being initiatives and resilience tools to help employee embrace different working patterns and create better work-life balance; all in response to societal demands of different generations in the workplace now.

As I left and reflected on what I had experienced, something didn’t feel right.

I have the opportunity to work in a high-trust culture where autonomy and accountability is high on the agenda, and as long as you deliver on your commitments, how and where you do your best work isn’t an issue. So, I felt slightly uncomfortable with the possibility that some companies utilising technology to track productivity and performance might encourage behaviours that create sub-optimal cultures and a sense of “Big Brother is watching you”. It got me thinking about the role of leaders and managers in navigating this dilemma and building the right culture for success.

Whilst I don’t want the world of business to turn into mass surveillance of employees, I do understand the need for organisations to track performance. But there has to be a better way than tracking the number of hours an employee is logged on to the server, or whether they have completed the annual engagement survey.

For me it’s about how leaders and managers find the right balance of giving accountability and autonomy to their people, whilst not always seeing or being in contact with their people on a daily basis. Gone are the days where you need to be chained to your desk and be “seen” to be working until the clock strikes 5pm, but I know those cultures still exist in some businesses.

As leaders and managers the mindset we choose to hold plays an important role here, and the ability to role model the right set of behaviours should enable employees and teams to deliver on commitments. Fundamentally we need to be able to trust others regardless of whether we have regular visibility of them. When no one trusts each other to do the work they are assigned, employee morale takes a hit. Employees feel like they can’t trust their manager. They feel devalued. And when employees aren’t valued, they’re less likely to be engaged with their work. So it’s a domino effect:

low accountability leads to mistrust leads to low morale leads to employee devaluation leads to low engagement leads to low productivity.

Achieving accountability is paramount to any high-performance organisation. Creating accountability is about creating a culture where people value responsibility and where people understand that accountability involves a certain degree of autonomy.

As leaders and managers we need to be able to demonstrate certain behaviours to build such a culture, namely:

  • Ensure our expectations are clear by articulating them and writing them down.

  • Identify what success looks like (in terms of metrics, targets etc.), making sure we are as objective as possible.

  • Communicate expectation and success criteria in such a way that employees will understand and buy into them.

  • Make sure employees know that they’ll be accountable for their work by creating guidelines about how we’ll monitor their productivity. Set weekly goals and deliverables so that employees are motivated to complete tasks on a regular basis. Then leave them alone.

  • Provide real-time feedback on progress. Let them make mistakes but always have their back.

  • Lead by example: make sure employees understand what we expect of them and that we’re holding ourselves to the same high standard. Follow through on our promises, own up to our mistakes and give feedback even when it isn’t easy. Most importantly, we need to make sure we’re following our own rules.

If leaders and managers can focus on building high-trust and strong relationships with their people, the need for visibility becomes obsolete. It becomes more about the desire to want to see them and spend time with them as humans and valuing the contribution they bring to the work, team or business. It’s not about the hours they clocked up or whether they are still sat at their desk at 5.30pm, but more about the extra mile they went to meet a client need or working the extra hours to hit a critical deadline. It’s ultimately about the give and get in the work relationship. Give accountability and trust and reap the rewards in productivity and performance, to help others become the best all-round human they can be in work and in life.

By clare timothy

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