Constructive Tension: The Cornerstone to Creativity

Some teams try to avoid conflict and tension in the belief that it contributes to negativity in the workplace.  While this is certainly a possibility for a poorly managed team, conflict is an important and valuable aspect to the creative process because it raises diverse views, which can lead to otherwise unexplored ideas and processes. In a well-managed team, healthy conflict leads to constructive tension. Instead of causing stress and anxiety, constructive tension propels the team to further discussion and excitement about moving from point A to point B. It creates the space for creativity and innovation and leads to productive, positive outcomes.[1]

Peter Senge describes constructive tension, also called creative tension, as the “gap between vision and current reality”. It is where possibility and constraint meet and is vital to create peak performing organizations. [2]  For this necessary and delicate balance to exist, employees must feel that there is value in filling the gap. They need to believe that, as part of the team, their participation matters and that they directly contribute to the actions needed to move from their current reality to the articulated vision. Without this gap and buy-in from employees, there would be little incentive or desire to take the action needed to move from vision to reality. [3]   

Being comfortable with creative tension is a must for effective managers. To achieve this, organizations need to create a “conflict positive” environment where differences are encouraged and discussed freely.[4] Creating a balance between two seemingly opposed ideas, such as expecting maximum work performance while at the same time encouraging professional development, is critical to improve both results and relationships.[5] This calls for ambidextrous leadership, which recognizes the inevitability of conflict, maintains focus on ideas instead of individual, and understands that conflict exists on a continuum. These leaders recognize their strengths and where they are lacking, engage others with diverse skills to foster and maintain constructive conflict, and create processes to work toward shared goals.[6]

Important to ensuring constructive versus destructive tension is balance: too little tension and there is no incentive to take risks or actively engage; too much, and it goes from being constructive to anxiety-inducing.[7] Research strongly supports the link between constructive tension and creativity and innovation, with some studies finding that competition can be as valuable as collaboration.[8]  Among the benefits of constructive tension are increased focus, which helps maintain critical productivity, as well as greater innovation and out-of-the-box thinking to get the job done and move it towards the desired future state.[9] Conversely, if tension stifles rather than encourages creatively, team members can become concerned about their psychological safety, lose trust in one another, adopt a groupthink attitude, or otherwise lose confidence and fear failure. [10]

A key attribute essential to create and maintain constructive tension is transparency. When everyone is on the same page and shares the same understanding of what is happening, employee buy-in is high, and the team maximizes the benefits of constructive tension.[11]  In fact, employees identify transparency as the number-one contributing factor to workplace happiness.[12] Everyone knows and understands how their contributions affect the ability to achieve their collective vision and keeps them focused on the same target.[13] Genuinely transparent organizations encourage information sharing, which improves employee relationships through better ideas and creative problem-solving. Employees also are more likely to promote the company and its products when they have had a role in its successes. Customer relationships also are stronger when companies adhere to the values they proclaim and clearly report how they demonstrate their support for their values. [14] This also contributes to profitability: most consumers (94%) saying they would be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency, [15] with a similar number (90%) saying they would stop purchasing products from brands that lack clarity.[16] Further, 81% of consumers are willing to try a brand’s “entire portfolio of products” if the brand is transparent, and 73% are willing to spend more for products that offer complete transparency.[17]

Tension exists in all workplaces, and the way it is managed determines how meaningful the resolution and outcomes will be.[18] Constructive tension is inexorably intertwined with creativity and innovation and contributes heavily to success.  History is rife with examples of businesses that failed due to a lack of change (e.g., Blockbusters, Blackberry, Kodak, MySpace)[19] or transparency (e.g., AIG, Enron, Tyco). This issue continues to across sectors today.[20] Consumers have spoken – shouted! – and organizations that listen and respond will reap the rewards of their loyalty, while those who don’t come under greater scrutiny and risk the fate of these former powerhouses who have become synonymous with failure and continue to exist only as a footnote in business texts.


[1] Isaksen, S.G. & Ekvall, G. (2010). Managing for innovation: The two faces of tension in creative climates. Creativity and Innovation Management, 19, 73-88.

[2] McGoff, C. (2017, Nov. 30). This psychological theory will motivate your team to achieve more in 2018. Inc.

[3] McGoff

[4] Isaksen & Ekvall

[5] (https://steverudolphcoaching.com/constructive-tension/)

[6] DeGraff, J. (2018, Dec 19). The creative power of constructive conflict. Psychology Today.

[7] McGoff

[8] Isaksen & Ekvall

[9] McGoff

[10] Baril, M. B. (2019, Sept 18). Five team attributes that are killing your creative tension. Forbes.

[11] McGoff

[12] Craig, W. (2018, Oct 16). 10 things transparency can do for your company. Forbes.

[13] McGoff

[14] Craig

[15] Label Insight. (2016). Driving long-term trust and loyalty through transparency. Label Insight Food Revolution Study.

[16] SproutSocial. (2019, May 2). #BrandsGetReal: Social media & the evolution of transparency. SproutSocial: From Risk to Responsibility: Social Media and the Evolution of Transparency.

[17] Label Insight.

[18] Isaksen & Ekvall

[19] Aaslaid,K. (2018, Nov 22). 50 examples of corporations that failed to innovate. Valuer.

[20] Pegoraro, R. (2019, Sept 29). Tech companies are quietly phasing out a major privacy safeguard. The Atlantic.

Radical Transparency and its impact on our teams

Radical transparency in the business world is the theory that everyone who works at a particular company should be fully honest about all matters from the top leadership to entry-level new hires [i]. It effectively means that everyone in the organization knows almost everything about the company both internally and externally. 

Company transparency has been around for a long time and has shown to improve employee engagement, reaction times to problems, alignment to overall goals and better performing teams. The term “Radical Transparency” was popularized by billionaire hedge fund owner, Ray Dalio. He went a step further by empowering employees to bring ideas, mistakes, problems and other matters they might typically hide to the forefront for open discussion. The thought was that giving this freedom would remedy problems, make decisions and uncover new ideas much quicker and mitigate being blinded by confirmation bias (Only seeking evidence that agrees with your view). 

The concept has excelled as the business evolves and populations want more equalized distribution of resources. Numerous well-known brands champion radical transparency such as Patagonia, Got Junk, Fiix, Fit Bit, Narrative Science and Buffer. Many go so far as to publish employee salaries and discuss lay-offs in the public forum. As ethics, traceability and sustainability continue to shift into societies view so too will radical transparency [ii].

Introducing radical transparency to your team after the company has been founded is not a simple task. Provided the company fit with this model, it must be championed directly from the leadership team and permeate all the way through the company culture underpinned by high levels of trust. [iii]. Leadership exemplifying these attitudes is the only effective way to offer confidence to the workforce and inspire trust without fear of exposure, punishment or embarrassment. Displaying financials, discussing pain points, targets, weaknesses, competitors, and many more allows a company to promote employee inclusion and develop trusting attitudes. Full trust, clear expectation and free-flowing employee contribution are key performance indicators of successful radical transparency [iv].

At first glance, the concept may seem utopian and simple with the sense that every organization should adopt these practices. However, there are practical considerations to raise and accept. The degree to which the model relies on trust between all members of the organization is fundamental. Trust gives the foundation for psychological safety which is what any team member requires to contribute, admit mistakes and share ideas [vi]. Psychological safety is regarded as the confidence and safety from embarrassment, social risk or punishment for contributing to their views and issues. Unfortunately, the Edelman Survey reflected in the World Economic Forum suggests that as many as one in three employees do not trust their employer [vii]. In a cyclical sense, this survey also suggests that trust issues are rectified by further transparency [vii].

Introducing radical transparency also invites interpersonal challenges. Decisions taken by CEO’s and upper-tier management have implications for everyone involved. Enacting full transparency demands courage and ownership from middle management and employees who need to avoid being viewed as incompetent. Specifically, leadership figures as the key influencer must deliberately structure and communicate the goal of transparency to their team. Fostering psychological safety implores leaders themselves to exemplify this attitude by asking for help, admitting mistakes, and accepting that a ‘subordinate’ may contribute better ideas on occasion than them [viii]. Demonstrating courage and championing this requirement is inclusive of correcting discouraging behaviours and actively removing fear and uncertainty from the employee base [ix]. Leadership must also understand the complexity of sharing good and bad feedback and the different weights each needs to be delivered with. Additionally, knowing when your team needs to move on from a topic or decompress from a discussion is very important. 

The successful introduction of radical transparency can show impressive results. Having an employee base able to disagree with leadership and ask questions undeterred by fears has resulted in failures being avoided and quicker and more varied solutions [ix]. Further to this, full disclosure of company finances instils trust but also removes the nature of people to question their earnings against the peers. Finally, by understanding organization problems and threats and feeling involved in the direction taken, teams become more invested in the success and thus take ownership of outcomes [ix]. Each of these benefits improves productivity and efficiency while also boosting sales. Individuals and teams who feel fulfilled in their roles tend to champion their employer.

As exceptional and inviting as those benefits are, there can be drawbacks as not every stakeholder might want full transparency. Radical transparency makes significant demands of the leaders who can cause burn out from the weight of difficult conversations and the possibility of doubt in themselves occurring [x]. When there are negatives to share, valid concerns for staff internalizing feedback arise, which damages psychological safety [xi]. Employees tend to steer clear of people who give feedback that contradicts their own self-view [xii]. The Big Brother effect can also set in when everything is open for discussion as employees can feel monitored. Employees are shown to be less productive under surveillance [x]. Many of these issues can be mitigated by effective preparation of management staff, accepted norms of safety and careful hiring processes [x].

Similar to the impact on the company, it is worth considering the impact of radical transparency on the emotional safety of teams [vi]. The workload, successes and failures of each team are made visible, which exposes a team positively and negatively depending on how effectively established psychological safety has been [viii]. Transparency takes the decision to share any concerns or problems encountered away from a team. While exposure of concern to peers can be intimidating to teams, well-established norms of safety prevent this from being a negative experience [ix]. Rather than feeling alone in problem-solving or unable to make mistakes, teams can benefit from the support and collective input of others. Likewise, it empowers teams to assist their counterparts and a sense of mutual achievement in success. The sharing of success and the support through challenges allows teams the freedom to feel safe but also become more efficient at problem-solving [viii].

Discussion of the organization and team funnels perfectly into the individual impacts. Radical transparency is experienced differently throughout an organization and is entirely dependent on how it approached in the company. For management figures, delivering negative feedback may challenge their own safety and that of the individual team member, but the pressure and stress of decision making is shared among each contributor. Where it is correctly enacted, transparency fosters trust [vii], and when a climate of safety is enforced individuals are free to ask more questions, feel a sense of belonging and relieved of numerous concerns. A reduction of in-house dramatics, elimination of salary comparisons and welcoming platforms for ideas and input positively benefit each person and their emotional safety. When emotionally safeguarded, team members are seen to actively contribute and challenge in a supported and fulfilling manner [viii].

As an industry professional working with teams on company culture and values, there are many lessons to be derived on transparency practices. While there is no one size fits all remedy, and every organization is different, the most agile, adaptable and problem-solving companies have a higher degree of transparency. From experience, these companies tend to lose less time on the wrong projects or making mistakes and have a far more involved and motivated staff body. Giving space for the employees to contribute to solutions by providing an open environment improves their decision making drastically. Although challenging, correct transparency implementation results in much tighter knit teams, who are aligned in their focus on success. In fact, this opinion corroborates with Google’s Project Aristotle findings which showed that psychological safety underpinned by trust gained from transparency was the most significant factor in team performance [vi], [viii] and [xiii]]. The evidence from companies, economic reports and employee satisfaction statistics suggest that radical transparency, while challenging, can be exceptionally rewarding. 

Reference list:

[i] Heemsbergen, L. J. (2013) Radical Transparency in Journalism: Digital Evolutions from Historical Precedents. Global Media Journal (2013).

[ii] Bonanni, L. (2011). Sourcemap: Eco-Design, Sustainable Supply Chains, and Radical Transparency. The ACM Magazine (2011).

[iii]  Zak, P (2012). The See-Through Organization. The Drucker Institute (2012).

[iv] Veselinova, E., Gogova Samonikov, M. (2018). Building Brand Equity and Consumer Trust Through Radical Transparency Practices (2018).

[v] Myers, J. (2016). Why don’t employees trust their bosses? World Economic Forum (2016).

[vi] Delizonna, L. (2017). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review (2017).

[vii] Edelman Trust Barometer 2016: Employee Engagement Executive Summary (2016)

[viii] Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Harvard Administrative Quarterly (1999).

[ix] Edmondson, A. (2002).Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams. International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork (2002).

[x] Gino, F. (2017). Radical Transparency Can Reduce Bias — but  only if it’s done right. Harvard Business Review (2017).

[xi] Bernstein, E. (2014). The Transparency Trap. Harvard Business Review (2014).

[xiii] Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times Magazine

[xii] Gino, F. (2016) Research: We Drop People Who Give Us Critical Feedback Harvard Business Review (2016).

Three Ways to Increase Productivity in the HR Industry

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has changed the modern landscape of the Human Resources (HR) industry. A recent survey found that 88 per cent1 of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home, regardless of whether or not they showed coronavirus-related symptoms. More than ever, HR managers are called upon to install more than an accountable framework for managing themselves, their teams, and their clients. They also need a workable solution that bridges the gap between balancing employee engagement with their recruitment and retention strategies. 

Remote work is on the rise, and statistics indicate that 73 per cent2 of all departments will have remote workers by 2028. How will an HR manager handle so many employees or freelance consultants in so many places? One way to solve this problem is to support a workplace culture that promotes respect and cultivates accountability. Simply put, a heard employee is an engaged employee. This means more than just the feel of employee engagement in terms of deep concentration, eagerness and passion for doing the work. It also needs to take into account the look of employee engagement in terms of organizational behaviour, such as actions that positively contribute to a healthy and productive work environment. 

So, how do you engage your team to be more productive? We’re glad you asked. Here are three simple questions to ask your team for three helpful answers to let you know where they stand – or don’t stand. 

Ask Three Simple Questions for Three Simple Answers 

A study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)3 states that three factors make up employee engagement. This includes conditions for engagement, engagement opinions and employee behaviours. It is interesting to note that one of the top-level conditions include relationships with co-workers and overall confidence in meeting work goals. The real question begs, what does this mean for your organization in terms of pivoting and shifting toward the trend of the new normal and remote work environments – while still strengthening its commitment to its team and to serving the client? 

“Introducing a framework that supports positive organizational behaviour, and brings fairness back into both the process and the conversation, is one way to engage your employees,” says Alistair Ritchie, CEO of FixPDQ.

“We always strive to simplify work, and so we ask our team three questions when it comes to work management. First, is the work reasonable? Can you complete it within the specified time frame? Yes. Good. Next, we ask, is the work possible? This helps set the stage for the employee to include their voice in the conversation and open a dialogue where they can seek guidance. 

“And, finally, we ask, is the work understood? We want our employees to understand and meet the core outcome of the work and deliver a final product that’s on time, on cost and on budget. We fully believe that empowering our employees can foster positive relationships across the desk – and even across the pond for remote workers.” 

Organizational Behaviour 

One suggested best practice to achieve a culture of accountability means focusing on the employee group – and not solely on the individual employee. Employees are at the heart of cultivating a culture of accountability and for promoting robust psychological health and safety in the workplace. Not to mention, taking care of your employees comes with byproducts of transparency and fairness with a side of trust. The data also supports the critical role of active organizational behaviour as an effective retention strategy. Compensation and work aside, statistics indicate that 12 per cent4 of employees are willing to stay where they are, based on their relationship with their immediate supervisor. This fact adds weight to the benefits of respectful treatment of all employees at all levels. It also helps create an opportunity to empower the employees who fall between the cracks and tend to believe that they need to suffer in silence. 

Take the example of an overworked digital team, in charge of a massive client project, but in danger of falling behind on their work schedule due to common pitfalls of not opening lines of communication. This can include missed details, unheard concerns, late emails, and other employees struggling to pick up the pieces. Imagine a scenario where your designers, Noah and Jane, are rushing to meet a deadline, and Noah is finishing up early and getting ready to leave for home – absolutely unaware that Mary is having problems with one of her tasks. After he leaves, she is left behind to finish the job on her own until she completes it with subpar results more than two hours later. This pushes her further behind on her work schedule, and in turn, puts the entire team behind on their overall tasks. 

A culture of accountability could have avoided this common pitfall from the beginning. Noah doesn’t need direction to check in on his team. He naturally asks Jane how she is doing and checks in to see if she needs help. As a unit, they share workloads when necessary so they can reach solutions quicker and more efficiently. 

Shift Your Mindset 

Committing to a culture of accountability requires avoiding the tendency or culture of wanting people to work the way you want them to – and places your organization ahead of that curve as that traditional approach becomes increasingly challenged as more workers embrace working remotely. It’s a mindset solution that plays nicely with our new normal. It fosters positive relationships, encourages constructive dialogues, and opens opportunities for collaboration from teams that generally operate in silos. Introducing a culture of accountability is more than providing feedback on work performance – it is providing an environment where employees are applauded for asking the right questions at the right time for the right result. 

For this reason alone, it only makes sense to introduce a work environment that applauds a hands up culture in terms of encouraging employees to take ownership and action when they see a problem or opportunity. It’s a critical first step for encouraging your employees and providing the necessary tools to help them be successful in their role – and increasing productivity for your organization. 

References

1 Baker, Mary. Gartner HR Survey Reveals 88% of Organizations Have Encouraged or Required Employees to Work From Home Due to Coronavirus. Gartner.

2 Conrad, Andrew. (2018). 10 Need-to-Know Project Management Statistics. Capterra.

3 Society for Human Resource Management. (2016). Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: Revitalizing a Changing Workforce.

4 Society for Human Resource Management. (2016). Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: Revitalizing a Changing Workforce.

Creating Safe Teams – and what does that mean?

In today’s workplace, employees often are hired for their unique skills and experience. While this hyper-focused knowledge helps create a competitive edge, it also creates demand for teams where multiple individuals can bring together their specific skill sets to strategize and respond to more complex, organizational goals.[1] To do this successfully requires more than simply uniting appropriately credentialed members, however, it needs collaboration. 

Because collaboration does not always occur organically, leaders may need to intentionally create an environment where employees can come together in exceptional ways. For this to happen, all team members needs to feel their voices are heard and matter. In other words, they need psychological safety, that is, a climate where they are comfortable being and expressing themselves.[2] Team members need to know they can be wrong and at ease when having difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors without causing insecurity.[3] While  organizational culture has its influence here, individual behavior is more of a key driver.[4]

Psychological safety exists only when there is  a willingness by all team members to be respectful of each others’ opinions and willing to engage in healthy debate. When it comes down to it, psychological safety means being vulnerable, and that scares people. It’s not only about being comfortable speaking up yourself, or admitting to your boss that the idea you convinced her to execute was a flop, it means sticking your neck out for a colleague who may be in the hot seat.[5] At the same time, it also means that you know that the feedback you receive, whether encouraging of your ideas or not, will be constructive and supportive.

Leaders can contribute to psychological safety by creating shared understanding, proactively seeking input, and responding appreciatively.[6] This is important because employees perceive the level of psychological safety to be higher when leaders have positive relationships with followers.[7] It is also important for leaders to measure employees’ views on psychological safety. This means team members, including managers, should asks for feedback, and  there should be metrics in place to periodically assess how team members feel[8] because damages to psychological safety must be repaired to ensure its continuity.[9]

Employees want this in their workplace! A Pew Research survey found that 89% of adults think it is “essential” for top executives to create a safe and respectful workplace, making it a top  three priority for businesses (along with honest and ethical leadership and providing fair pay and good benefits).[10] However, only 30% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions at work count.[11] This is a huge – and costly gap because psychological safety impacts important organizational outcomes.

Psychological safety leads to greater engagement and comfort in experimenting and taking risks because employees don’t fear retribution, punishment, or embarrassment.[12] They are comfortable being collaborative and asking for or offering help. Psychological safety has a reciprocal effect in terms of engagement in that this type of environment encourages greater engagement, which itself adds to the psychological safety.[13] Google conducted a two-year study on team performance and found that psychological safety was, by far, the most important dynamic associated with high-performing teams. Individuals who were on teams with higher psychological safety brought in more revenue, were rated as effective by executives twice as often as other employees, embraced diverse ideas, and were less likely to leave the company.[14] High-performing teams also demonstrate higher engagement, increased motivation, better performance, and greater opportunities for learning and development.[15]

Although psychological safety is a characteristic of the whole team, it starts with the individual. As such, team members need to get in the right headspace to create a psychologically safe team. To increase psychological safety and be more accountable in a team, members should focus on collaboration and curiosity, rather than competition and blame.[16] Recognize that even when teams disagree, every member is a person with their own hopes, anxieties, and families who love them. Like you, they want peace and happiness in their lives.

You can be accountable for your contribution to creating a psychologically safe, collaborative team by  adapting a new perspective. Start by reframing your perception of failure as having only disastrous outcomes.[17] Anxiety is wasted if it turns out your boss loves the idea you agonized over bringing forward. Even if it’s rejected, you might get feedback  to help you refine it, but either way, it’s very unlikely you will lose your job if your boss doesn’t like your idea. Reframing failure as just one of the many, albeit less desirable, steps on the way to success can change your attitude and approach towards conquering it.

Creating a truly psychologically safe environment means that all team members, regardless of level or location, share and benefit from the values established by the organization. In a face to face environment, team members benefit beyond formal interactions because they also can interact more casually, over coffee or lunch. Remote workers are unable to engage in the same ways.  With more people working from home, by choice or need, it is increasingly important for organizations to actively and deliberately create opportunities for all team members to interact.[18]

There are many ways to engage employees across geographical barriers and learn about their views, but the best way, hand’s down, is to ask them. This could, and should, be done on several levels. When creating a new team, or adding a member, ask each team member’s views on their skillsets, what they believe to be their greatest asset to the team, where they might need support, and so on. Don’t be afraid to include more personal information for team-building. Ask how each person got their name or a surprising fact about themselves. Be sure to document or graph responses as a reference to foster collaboration across the whole team.

Beyond work-related projects, teams should also incorporate regular “events” to develop a collaborative and supportive environment.  Have coffee or happy hours (maybe at the same time, depending on where team members are located!) where conversations are focused on individuals instead of work. You can also maintain a private team site or YouTube channel where employees are encouraged to post content, such as their children’s first day of school pictures or #DreamVacation links. Building social bonds helps build positive and trusting relationships, which are critical to psychological safety and successful collaboration among teams.

[1] Jones, B.F. (2017). The science behind the growing importance of collaboration. Kellogg School of Management, KelloggInsight

[2] Herway, J. (2017). How to create a culture of psychological safety. Gallup Workplace.

[3] Lagace, M. (2018). Make your employees feel psychologically safe. Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge.

[4] Borysenko, Karlyn. (2018). How to create your own psychological safety at work. Forbes.

[5] Borysenko

[6] Lagace

[7] Frazier, M.L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R.L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta-analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70, 113-165.

[8] Delizonna, L., (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review.

[9] Frazier et al.

[10] Parker, K. (2018). Many Americans say women are better than men at creating safe, respectful workplaces. Pew Research Center.

[11] Herway

[12] Herway

[13] Frazier et al.

[14] Rozovsky, J. (2015). The five keys to a successful Google team. Google; re:Work

[15] Delizonna

[16] Borysenko

[17] Borysenko

[18] Menabney, D. (2019). Why you need even more trust with a remote team. Forbes.

Creating Accountability in Task Management

Reasonable, Possible, Understood

Some leaders believe that accountability is intrinsic, with some employees going above and beyond every time, on every task, while others do the bare minimum of work to stay under the radar. Creating an environment designed for accountability, where all employees proudly take ownership of their tasks and outcomes can significantly improve performance at the individual, team, and organizational level.[i]  

Accountability is the expectations about what an individual or organization is obliged to explain, justify, or take responsibility for. Traditionally, leaders too often have opted for  hierarchical approach to accountability, enforcing a top-down chain of command. This anachronistic view reflects a workplace in which superiors delegate authority to subordinates and hold them accountable for their decision and behavior by dictating what needs to be done, how it should be done, and the expectations for outcomes.[ii] This rarely, if ever, is effective and more likely results in unresolved issues and frustration on the part of leaders and employees.   

Fostering an environment of accountability must be fundamental within an organization’s culture.[iii] Knowing and being invested in the organization’s goals, objectives, and key results set the standards for accountability and other expected behaviors and contributions. To that end, everyone in the organization, from the line workers through the CEO, must have a unified understanding of the organization’s goals and what it stands for. Unfortunately, this clarity is glaringly absent from most organizations. A Workplace Accountability Study of 40,000 employees across industries found that 85% of survey participants were not sure what their organizations were trying to achieve.  With such a staggering imbalance it is no wonder that there is a lack of alignment and focus in understanding and successfully completing mission critical tasks.[iv]

Other factors beyond culture also influence accountability. Large or complex organizational structures can be challenged in creating an expectation of accountability because projects often involve multiple, and perhaps geographically disparate teams, which can result in blurred leadership and boundaries. Another challenge in large organizations is that decisions or changes in direction may be made by one office, but are not quickly, accurately, or effectively shared with other entities who continue to proceed under different guidelines and goals. With so many moving parts, it is not surprising that inconsistencies arise for which few, if any, participants are willing to assume responsibility. [v]

To create trusting and collaborative relationships that serve as the foundation for accountability there are three areas to consider when assigning tasks.

First, is the task reasonableDoes what you are asking an employee to do make sense in terms of its  structure, duration, and priority within the individual’s and organization’s schedule? Ensuring that roles and processes are clear is critical, and eliminating confusion and providing clear guidance on how the proceed is essential prior to implementation. Expectations must be clearly defined if organizational short- and long-term goals are to be met.[vi] The Workplace Accountability Study found that 50% of those surveyed disliked accountability because they didn’t know how to effectively implement it.[vii] Leaders cannot expect employees to be accountable without a clear understanding of what the company is trying to achieve.

Next, ensure that the task is possibleand resources are available to support its completion.  Leaders must provide support and resources, along with advice on how to improve. This helps create a learning environment where employees feel like they have the freedom to be more innovative and are comfortable seeking guidance if needed. Creating genuine accountability involves giving up the reigns, so while setting clear goals is critical, it is also important to allow employees the freedom to determine how to achieve those goals.[viii]

Employees who feel their managers care for them want to help the organization succeed; those who don’t, are unmotivated to take any initiative above and beyond their identified requirements.[ix]  [x] Teams who are motivated and work well together will identify existing gaps and create new processes that enable them to handle tasks even more efficiently.[xi] Again, this must be reflected in the organization’s culture. To encourage commitment to reaching goals, engage employees in the goal-setting process.[xii]  This helps ensure that they understand the expectations and increases their commitment to the project. Conversely a lack of clarity contributes to a lack of accountability.

Finally, the task must be understoodKnowing the goals is one thing, but being aligned on what successful completion of a task looks like might be something else entirely!  Once goals are clearly understood, leaders should provide specific, individualized metrics for each role. Further, they should be clear on how each individual’s contributions impact the overall success of the project. This requires feedback and updates on progress, which should link specifically to the goals individuals are tasked with completing.[xiii] [xiv]

To be clear, accountability is a two way process. Inherent in the assignment of a task is a supervisor’s accountability to deliver the appropriate resources to complete the task and to provide the employee with an evaluation of her effectiveness based on pre-determined and agreed upon criteria. This iterates the need for being very clear in identifying which individuals or teams are responsible for each task and letting them know the criteria by which they will be measured, individually and as part of the overall project success.  This is particularly critical with cross-functional teams. [xv]

It is also important to note that accountability shouldn’t be viewed as a precursor to punishment. Among those surveyed in the Workplace Accountability study, 80% said feedback was something that happens to them only when things go wrong, if it occurs at all![xvi] In such an environment, employees will be afraid to speak up about issues that may prevent them from task completion, and will most assuredly make them think twice before offering suggestions about a new or more efficient approach.[xvii] Certainly consequences for failing to complete tasks that are reasonable, possible, and understood should be made clear at the outset and enacted when necessary. However, penalizing employees who are unable to complete their tasks because they were not properly prepared or were required to follow an established but ineffective process is unfair and punitive. Of course, when employees know the expectations, have the resources to complete tasks, and receive feedback during the process, the likelihood of failure is virtually eliminated.

To experience the benefits that occur when accountability is an organization-wide expectation, leaders must “walk the talk” and demonstrate by example. Accountability in organizations builds trust, reduces unnecessary repetition and unproductive activity, and achieves better compliance. It may take some effort to implement effective processes, but the successful outcomes for employees and the organization are well worth the effort. 

[i] Partners In Leadership. (2014). Landmark workplace study reveals “Crisis of accountability”.

[ii] Bovens, M., Goodin, R.E., Schillemans, T. (eds.). (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability

[iii] White, D., & White, P. (2017). Build a culture of accountability in 5 steps. Entrepreneur

[iv] Partners In Leadership

[v] Ashkenas, R. (2012). Why accountability is so muddled, and how to un-muddle it. Harvard Business Review.

[vi] Robertson, A., & Dvorak, N. (2019). 5 ways to promote accountability. Gallup – Workplace.

[vii] Partners In Leadership

[viii] Browning, H. (2012). 7 ways to build accountable organizations. Forbes.

[ix] Browning

[x] Robertson & Dvorak

[xi] Browning

[xii] Robertson & Dvorak

[xiii] Browning

[xiv] Robertson & Dvorak

[xv] Ashkenas

[xvi] Partners In Leadership

[xvii] Forbes