Why Accountability Is An Essential Ingredient to Employee Engagement and Performance


Sylvia Melena is the founder and CEO of Melena Consulting Group, a leadership and management consulting and training company based in San Diego County, California. She is the author of Supportive Accountability, How To Inspire People and Improve Performance.

Sylvia Melena: “Accountability is not a stick. It's not something bad you do to people, accountability is actually the caring thing to do.

I want to start off by saying that I do have a passion for accountability and that passion has been ingrained in me ever since I can remember in my leadership career. I recall back in 2006 when I accepted a new management assignment. I started working for a boss who was really into employee engagement and strengths-based leadership. I thought it was a great thing, but I do need to admit that I was torn.

I was torn because I felt like I was being asked to really focus on people's weaknesses and ignore performance gaps and that was contrary to my wiring. I was about delivery of results, performance improvement, and really taking our game to the highest level we can take it. And the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.

Until one day I went into my manager's office  and I asked her about it. And to my surprise, I was really happy to hear that I didn't have to ignore performance issues. On the contrary, I had to work through them like I normally would. I was still expected to handle them and address them only this time I would be looking at it from a strengths-based lens.

I would be looking at what people had to offer up instead of what they lacked.

That really boded well for me because accountability is important and when people are doing well, they bring their best to work. It's through that lens of strengths-based leadership and employee engagement that I developed the supportive accountability leadership model that is in my book.

Before I go into the model, I'd like to talk a little bit about the framework or the philosophy for it. That philosophy is really encapsulated in the four P's of accountability. The four P's are people, purpose, performance and progression.

People. People matter and people drive performance, not technology, not performance goals, not resources. So when we look at accountability and when we're holding people and ourselves accountable, we need to make sure we make people feel safe. That they know they're cared about and that they know they matter. We are never to compromise their health, their safety, or their wellbeing for the sake of performance. And ourselves, we're people too, so we're not to compromise our integrity.

Purpose. The purpose of accountability is not to beat people into meeting performance expectations. The purpose is really to support them and to set them up for success. It's to achieve the mission of our organization, it's to achieve the goals set before us. And so, with that in mind, everything we do is about ensuring that we're there for our people, we're there for the organization, we're there for the customers that we serve.

Performance. Accountability is really a way of driving performance and driving results. When you look at the word accountability, it starts with the word account. So in accountability, we render an account of what we've delivered in terms of the performance benchmarks, the expectations and other non-tangibles that are required of us.

Progression. Progression is all about taking performance to higher levels. Progression is about helping them meet performance expectations if they aren’t already. When employees are doing well, it's about helping them progress to higher levels of performance.

But there's a problem, and in my 20 years of leadership, I've seen managers and supervisors struggle with holding the employees accountable. What has stood out to me is that people who have struggled to hold their employees accountable the right way have either been too harsh, too lenient, or too disengaged in performance management.

These three unbalanced approaches have been detrimental to performance. The key to effective performance management and to ensuring employees are as effective and productive as possible is balance. This is a balance between two key elements that are part of the performance management process, supportiveness and accountability. They may be different, but they're very complimentary.

I'm going to show you what that balance looks like and how it translates into the workplace. I'm going to go over the supportive accountability leadership model, the four leadership styles that can make or break the workplace, and the seven keys that engage employees and boost performance.

Supportive accountability leadership is a very simple but powerful framework that will help you engage employees and improve performance.

At the core of the model is supportive accountability, a blend of supportive supervision and strong accountability that sparks employee performance. With supportive accountability leadership, you can achieve one of three outcomes.

Success. The employee achieves what it's expected and is successful in the organization. This is the ultimate goal of supportive accountability leadership.

The employee discovers that the position is not a good fit. They move on to a new role with either another company or within your organization. Either way, it's a win, win, win. It's a win for you. It's a win for the employee. It's a win for the organization. And ultimately, it's a win for our customers.

Removal. The employee doesn't succeed in spite of all the support, all the tools, resources, equipment, time that you spend with them and then the employee is removed from the position. This is not the goal of supportive accountability, but is sometimes necessary so that you, the employees, and the organization can be successful, and success is about the people that we serve.

The supportive accountability leadership model frames performance management in terms of four basic leadership styles. These leadership styles are framed in terms of how much supportiveness and accountability is rendered by the leader.

It’s a four-quadrant model: there's high supportiveness, low supportiveness, high accountability, and low accountability. And depending on where in terms of the two poles leaders fall, that's the style that they exhibit. So let's take a deeper dive into these.

Unsupportive accountability exemplifies high levels of accountability and low levels of support. Leaders who lead with unsupportive accountability demand results. They have high expectations, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Expecting employees to deliver high results and expectations and performance is a good thing. Unfortunately, leaders who lead with unsupportive accountability demand high results, but do not provide the support, the resources that employees need to be successful. This can create a very harsh and intimidating work environment and it's detrimental to the organization. When employees feel that the pressure is on, they become overwhelmed and it's not good for customers, it's not good for employees. Their health can suffer, and the organization can also reap the consequences.

Supportive Unaccountability exemplifies high supportiveness and it also exhibits low accountability. This is the leader that cares too much about being liked, who wants to create a very happy work environment and wants to make everyone happy. There's nothing wrong with creating a great work environment. The unfortunate thing is that accountability also has to be part of it. When leaders don't hold people accountable, it really creates a very uncomfortable work environment. What happens is that the high performing employees will usually take up the slack of those that are not meeting expectations and their morale sinks.

Total avoidance is low accountability and low supportiveness. This is a complete lack of either of the two elements. What happens in this style is that leaders really show a completely hands-off approach. They do not get involved in their operations with their employees.  What happens here is that when problems arise, leaders don't address them early on, which causes them to snowball and when they snowball, they become greater issues, sometimes they escalate beyond your organization.

Supportive accountability. Here leaders display high accountability and high supportiveness. This is a balanced approach to accountability. You're looking at both of the elements and you're balancing them. There's really no magic formula for how much support and accountability are needed. The best leaders are going to look at each situation. They're going to look at the individual, they're going to look at the circumstances, and they're going to apply the right amount of support and the right amount of accountability. In some cases, you need more accountability than support and vice versa. At other times you'll need more support and less accountability. For example, if someone fails to meet performance indicators but something terrible happened to their family, at that moment you're not going to be discussing performance goals, you're going to be giving the support and trying to be there for the employee.

The four leadership styles are not intended to label leaders; they’re really a starting point.

They're there to help leaders discover the performance management approach that they tend to use and then to work towards achieving supportive accountability. Leading with supportive accountability is a choice. It's something that can be learned and refined over time and we can make that our active choice today. It's a choice that will have a profound impact on the people that you lead and serve.

When leaders choose to lead with supportive accountability, they employ seven elements that engage employees and boost performance. These seven elements are expectations, monitoring, feedback, support, recognition, accountability and documentation. Documentation, the last one, is the one that usually leaders dread. There are some tips and tools that can be employed to make that a little easier.

I'm not going to go into all of the seven elements in depth because of the time constraints, but I do want you to get a feel in terms of how each plays out in the workplace.

Expectations. Expectations that inspire are more than quantifiable roles. They let employees know their work is part of something greater and makes a difference. They clarify the expected results and how achievement will be measured.

Monitoring. Monitoring, measuring, observing and reviewing work points people to the work that really matters. With so many competing priorities, it helps employees focus their energy on that which you prioritize through monitoring.

Feedback. Effective feedback is two-way collaborative communication. It lets employees know whether or not they're meeting expectations. It also helps you identify support needs, provide recognition and promote accountability.

Support. Support is anything employees reasonably need to be successful. It can involve tools, equipment, supplies, training, and access to information. Sometimes support means supporting people through difficult circumstances such as addictions, homelessness, mental health and other concerns.

Recognition. Recognition goes far beyond formalized recognition programs. It creates of culture of gratitude that encourages everyone regardless of title or role to appreciate and recognize others.

Accountability. Accountability is the caring thing to do. It helps you reinforce expectations, provide people the resources they need to do their work and cheer them on when they succeed.

Documentation. Documentation is not optional, it's critical for fair, accurate and complete performance evaluations. It also supports recognition and disciplinary action. Many leaders struggle with documentation, but the right tools and best practices can ease the burden.

None of these seven elements matter without the most crucial factor for unleashing performance excellence. A strong supervisor-employee relationship. This relationship is the foundation of supportive accountability and leadership. When your relationship with the people that you lead is strong, it fosters trust, they open up to you, they're able to let you know what tools, what resources, what needs they have. And sometimes it gets personal. It doesn't mean that you pry into their personal lives, but it does mean that you're there for them when they need you. And the strong supervisor-employee relationship does involve collaborative communication which means two way, you're listening more than you are speaking. I know sometimes that's difficult, but really hearing people out, learning what they're about, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their aspirations, their desires, that really will help you establish a strong supervisor-employee relationship.

That's why the core is supportive accountability, a blend of supported supervision and strong accountability that sparks employee performance. This is the key to achieving success. So whether you want to jumpstart new employee performance, transform good performance into performance excellence or turnaround lackluster performance, supportive accountability leadership can help you achieve results.

We went briefly over some items of the supportive accountability leadership model. I know it wasn't in a lot of depth. I do cover more extensively the things that we've covered today in addition to other things in my book Supportive Accountability, How To Inspire People and Improve Performance.

To sum it up, supportive accountability, the leadership model is about balance and that balance is the key to ensuring employees are as effective and productive as possible. That balance is between supportiveness and accountability, ensuring that people are supported and yet delivering results.

Out of the four leadership styles, supportive accountability is the balanced approach. But nothing is more important than that supervisor-employee relationship. When you put it all together, you really create a workplace where employees are thriving, and they feel empowered to bring their best to work. Thank you. I really enjoyed my time with you. Thank you for spending your time with me and I wish you the best on the rest of your leadership journey.”