Employee accountability refers to the principle that individuals are responsible for their actions and may be required to explain them to others. Employees are accountable for the quality and timeliness of their work and for maintaining ethical behavior.
Close to 50% of managers do not hold employees accountable, according to a Harvard Business Review article. And in a study by Willis Towers Watson, nearly a quarter of all organizations gave bonuses to employees who had not met their expectations. With the news surrounding sexual harassment, corporate fraud, and employee theft, some would argue that there is an accountability crisis worth paying attention to.
As the need for accountability rises, corporations will undoubtedly increase trainings and education about policies. While these interventions may offer some help, it is important to be aware of the psychological implications of accountability.
Accountability and parent-child relationships
Nobody likes to be told what to do.
While clear instructions make for an aligned team, the way you deliver instructions matters. The brain uses past learning as a guide to predict behaviors. An authority figure can activate old memories of a parent, and an employee may start to respond accordingly.
A recent meta-analysis of 161 studies examined the parent characteristics most associated with delinquency in children. Parents who keep their children dependent, try to change their feelings, use guilt to control their children, or ignore them as a form of punishment are more likely to have delinquent children.
With this in mind, leaders should pay careful attention to how they communicate and how employees respond to them. Explaining and enforcing rules is important, but it’s equally crucial to have an open channel of warm communication to avoid guilt and dependence. Here are some of the psychological implications to consider when holding employees accountable:
Accountability and fear. Fear and threat-based messages may do the opposite of what leaders want. When the brain’s anxiety center, the amygdala, is activated, people tend to avoid anxiety-provoking stimuli. For example, feeling afraid and threatened makes people prepare less for a disaster. Sometimes, appealing to fear can be helpful, but one must always be aware of how this could backfire.
To avoid conflict, managers need to balance fear-based messages with positive motivational messages. When discouraging conflict-of-interest behaviors, for instance, also talk about the trust that openness can foster and emphasize the upsides of working together.
Accountability and guilt. Shame and guilt also activate the conflict and anxiety centers in the brain. However, shame and guilt can motivate people to change when there is an opportunity for reparation. For example, not meeting a deadline should be acknowledged, but it is best done with a discussion about reparation in the future.
In certain situations, shame and guilt may motivate behavior change, but this too can backfire. Unless there is an opportunity for reparation and unless the guilt is handled with nuance, the impact of rules will fall on deaf ears. When someone appears to be falling behind in productivity, for example, call this out respectfully and ask him or her to participate in a plan for reparation.
Accountability and avoidance. When we try too hard to avoid something, the brain may have a rebound desire to do what we are trying not to do. Sometimes, the avoidance of a temptation may help us, but too much self-control can make us less stable.
To inspire accountability in your team, talk about proactive behaviors rather than self-control. For instance, you can emphasize the need for respect in the workplace and the beauty of such a culture, rather than only spreading no-tolerance messages.
When psychological implications are properly considered, accountability becomes easier to maintain in the workplace. Remember to handle accountability with nuance and a vigilant eye to the implications above to determine whether your strategy is beneficial.
Managers must develop the insights and skills to communicate with tact and diplomacy in all types of situations.