It’s the day before your quarterly all-hands meeting. You’re pumped. Your sales team has been working hard all month, and you’re excited to present.
Usually, it’s Eve, whom you often refer to as your “right hand,” who creates the presentation. You decide to check in (it’s been a while) and ask her how it’s going.
“I couldn’t start on it yet as I’m waiting on the figures from Jim,” she says.
“Okay… so what about the rest of it?” you ask, panic mounting.
“I… I’ve just gotten started, it should be done by end of day,” she stammers.
Except, Jim’s been on emergency medical leave. For three days. Eve begins to stutter, and you can hear her glug-glug into a pool of anxiety over the phone.
This is what most managers are afraid of when it comes to remote work. That “work from home” means “shirk from home.”1 But this isn’t an issue of remote work.
This is an issue of accountability.
In this article we’ll cover:
- What accountability means
- What to do when employees are irresponsible or unresponsive
- The difference in handling accountability issues in a flat organization vs a hierarchical structure
- How to build a culture of accountability without losing employee engagement or authoritarian tactics
But first, here’s a quick clip from our Remote Work Masterclass on how to manage a remote team:
What accountability means
18% of top executives say holding others accountable is their greatest weakness.2 Poor performers lower workplace morale, increase the burden on high performers, and negatively affect company culture. Almost a fifth of a leader’s (very valuable) time is sucked into handling poor performance3 and often in these scenarios we hear “X is not doing their job!” or “X needs to be held accountable for this task!”
What exactly does it mean to be accountable, though? According to author and CEO Peter Bregman, “…accountability is not simply about taking the blame when something goes wrong. It’s not a confession. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.”
For Eve to be accountable, it isn’t enough to throw her hands up and say “I’m sorry, I started on this late.” She would have to pull an all-nighter, find a solution to acquiring the figures she needed for the PowerPoint, and get the presentation done on time.
Want to learn how to transition your team to a remote work environment? Download this step-by-step checklist for managing a remote team.
What to do when employees are irresponsible or unresponsive
Scenarios like the one described with Eve can be infuriating. A leader in that position would be right to feel like they can’t “trust” their employees or colleagues. How is one to remain calm just hours before a big deadline?
In an ideal world, leaders would have prevented these problems by building a culture of accountability and practicing collaborative leadership from the get go. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and most managers are learning on the job. How do we deal with underperforming employees then?
Step 1: Introspect
Begin with self awareness. Before arriving at the conclusion that it’s the employee’s fault, did you rule out the possibility that you might be contributing to the situation? Have you done your very best to set your employee up for success by clearly communicating your expectations, fine-tuning inefficient workflows and being available to help?
Bear all these in mind so that you’re fair to your employees while speaking with them in the next steps.
Step 2: Communicate
Feedback is always difficult to take, no matter how constructive and beneficial it may be. Not only that, working remotely tends to make people more anxious about their mistakes.4 Here are some tips to handle a feedback conversation delicately:
1. Point out the transgressions and the problematic behaviors as soon as you see them
Notice your direct report is nodding off in a video meeting? Shoot them a quick private message, the virtual equivalent of “taking a person aside” and respectfully let them know what you’re noticing, maybe even giving them the benefit of doubt. Focus on being helpful (“Have you been sleeping well? What’s going on?”) rather than calling them out (“This is rude, please stop it”).
You want to do this instantly, as not doing so might build up more distrust and room for misunderstanding later.
2. Ask questions and listen intently
Once you’ve pointed out problematic behaviors a few times, it’s safe to take the conversation to the next level. Do this with curiosity, not anger.
Maybe they nodded off in a video meeting last month, skipped a virtual coffee this month, and missed two deadlines consecutively after that. Probe for the deeper reasons or the underlying cause. Ask if they’re aware of the consequences of those slip ups: “Jim had to work overtime to make up for the delay in your submission last week.”
Rather than stating the issue in an accusatory way (maybe they have a family emergency going on), see if you can help the individual arrive at the conclusion themselves as this is less threatening.
3. Explore solutions
Take a collaborative approach to resolving the issue. Perhaps your conversation might have thrown light on the inefficiency of a particular process consisting of using too many different remote working tools (which took up all your employee’s time) or your employee might be struggling with childcare at home. Rather than telling the employee what to do, allow them to take ownership of the problem and come up with a solution on their own.
And then, express that you’ll always be available to help if needed. It might help to institute a way to measure the outcome and set a time-based goal: “I’ll make it a point to address the long-windedness of the workflow, but can we bring down the number of errors in the documentation to at most two to three per quarter?”
Have the final decision in writing so everyone is on the same page.
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Step 3: Apply consequences
If the situation doesn’t improve after you’ve put in the time and energy, it might be down to the fact that the employee is simply not equipped with the skills (or the desire) to change things.
At this juncture, you might need to introduce a consequence such as a probation or a termination. Of course, this decision shouldn’t be made lightly, and should only be a last resort.
Accountability issues in a flat organization vs one with a hierarchical structure
Authority exists to help leaders exercise accountability—in typical hierarchies, the leader is accountable for their team and is provided with the authority to be able to enforce it. It makes the job of the manager a whole lot easier—and maybe this is why this system has thrived for centuries.
But in this era of human-centred and employee-centred companies, nobody likes being “told what to do” or taken to task like schoolchildren. People resent managers who “clamp down” or lean too heavily on their position to command, rather than influence, action.
Enter “flat” organizations, designed so there are fewer managers (who have broader spans of control), and employees have more responsibility and decision-making autonomy. Research shows that communication, accountability and collaboration thrive in flat organizations.5 Which is better for nourishing a culture of accountability?
The answer is: it depends. While many managers take to flat structures well, there are some who feel uncomfortable with relinquishing control. Some employees simply prefer being told what to do.
Either way, accountability issues in flat and hierarchical organizations are not too different from one another. A flat company can suffer as much from poor communication as a hierarchical one.
Sometimes, a heavily hierarchical company with intellectually and emotionally competent managers at every level can also have a great culture of accountability. (Think of the “academy” companies in the ‘70s, like Procter & Gamble and General Electric. Or even the British East India Company.)
Whether you’re managing in a flat or a hierarchical organization, it comes down to hiring the right people and building a culture of accountability.
How to build a culture of accountability in remote teams
According to Joseph Grenny, co-founder of corporate training and leadership development company VitalSmarts, the strength of a team and its culture of accountability are closely related. He writes, “In the weakest teams, there is no accountability. In mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability. In high performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another.”6
Wouldn’t it be amazing for a manager to have accountability issues take care of themselves in the first place? Here are some tips to achieve that:
1. Define everything
Define goals and objectives at the company-wide level, team level, and individual level. Show employees why these goals are meaningful, align them with their individual roles (or learning and development paths), and help them see the importance of their contributions.
Make sure they know exactly what their key performance indicators (KPIs) are and how they’ll be measured.
2. Measure kindly
Constantly measuring an employee and flooding them with “desired outcomes” and indicators can be demoralizing if it’s not done right, such as when it’s not accompanied with care and positive motivation.7
So, don’t over-rely on metrics alone, and always take into consideration the other influences on an employee’s performance (colleagues, disability, pressure in their personal life, etc). An employee, though paid to produce value for your company, is more than just their performance on KPIs. Respect that.
3. End “unspoken rules”
It is not fair to call out an employee for failing to perform to an expectation they weren’t aware of. Unspoken rules just create confusion and exacerbates feelings of isolation and “left-out”ness that plagues remote workers.8
Overcommunicate instead of leaving things up to interpretation—it’s okay to have the occasional long meeting, and it’s well worth it if you can use that time to clearly address areas where the team is underperforming.
Don’t just leave everything to email. Try to use a communication platform that gives you different options like video conferencing and team messaging. For example, here’s how it works in RingCentral’s app:
Having clear communication channels is especially important in a remote team environment where you aren’t all in the same room, and is one of the best ways to encourage your team to, y’know, talk to each other.
You might also find that a work-from-home policy will come in handy.
4. Work on employee engagement
Yes, a team of thriving and engaged fully remote employees isn’t only possible, it’s also being done at companies like Zapier, Doist, and Automattic.
Conduct employee engagement surveys, invest in virtual team building activities, and motivate your team to believe in your business’ purpose—your employees will be happy to be accountable for goals they’ve had a role in shaping.9
5. Choose to be helpful
Most managers and senior leaders are in these positions precisely because they’ve got tons of experience handling the very professional issues that their teams might be facing at present. They’re in the perfect position to be helpful.
Plus, 79% of millennial employees want a coach or mentor instead of a “boss” in the traditional sense.10 So, think about your approach. Constantly “checking in” and asking for updates might make you seem like you’re breathing down the neck of your employee and lead to hostility—instead, why not approach with helpfulness and curiosity?
6. Discuss problems as soon as you identify them
A good barometer for the health of teams and businesses is the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems. Resolving problems quickly improves relationships. Grenny adds, “The longer the lag, the more room there is for mistrust, dysfunction, and more tangible costs to mount. The role of leader is to shrink this gap.”
7. Provide feedback
Set up regular check-ins or coaching calls (preferably on video) and let your team know how they’re doing. Don’t forget to praise for a job well done.
Employees who feel cared for by their teammates and managers will want to come through and feel less anxious about talking about their performance.
Let’s get your remote team accountable
Under immense pressure and accountable for larger company goals themselves, leaders often find themselves on a short string and act out of frustration. They bark orders, badger, or plead. Some throw up their hands in despondence, or worse, behave passive-aggressively.
These reactions are unproductive and stress everyone out, potentially damaging the relationship irreparably.
Grooming a team of responsible and motivated employees is, therefore, as much about technique and knowhow as it is about patience. You know the basics of building an accountable team. Time to take a deep breath and collect all the calm you can muster. It’s going to be a tough but ultimately rewarding journey ahead.
Originally published Jun 08, 2020, updated Jan 30, 2023