Operating in the new normal of COVID-19 requires embracing remote work for your team. There are endless obstacles to overcome, such as isolation factors, interruptions and distractions — not to mention, accessibility to technology for disabled workers. One way to address this challenge is to take a strategic approach to meet worker requirements and still encourage voluntary engagement.
So, what are some other ways to set clear expectations to help create a culture of accountability for your remote work teams? Here are suggested methods for communicating and setting clear expectations, delegating team tasks, leading by example, and tracking team performance.
Communication and Preferences
Developing an inclusive and accountable team requires clear direction, asking the right questions, and getting your organization on the same page. This includes removing clutter and confusion and sourcing feedback on work, goals and budget.
A collaborative culture takes time and is reinforced by understanding your expectations as a leader or manager. Get the ball rolling by sharing your non-negotiable preferences, clearly communicating expected results, and creating opportunities for your team. Take the lead during stand-up meetings, and facilitate discussions to help your team determine their work expectations and establish team norms. Share meeting notes on a central drive so the team can access it for reminders.
Remember that expectations are a two-way street. Hold yourself accountable and honour your end of the deal. Agree and follow through on decisions together as a team — but set clear consequences if the team fails to meet expectations. Be deliberate on agreements and invite the team to participate in discussions regarding consequences. In the end, non-negotiables are more likely to get the results and deliver the high-performing work you want.
One best practice to open lines of communication is to listen to all expectations and avoid losing credibility by ignoring unreasonable expectations. Adjust expectations for the results you need. Reaching team performance is more than giving up control. It requires accurate and crystal clear expectations, opens the ownership process to include the overall team — and increases accountability as a by-product. It only makes sense to set your employees up for success as they transition from a more structured traditional work environment to an unstructured remote environment. Setting expectations allows your team to focus on their work, and their connection to the overall team.
Clearly Define Work
What is your delegating strategy? Do you have a system for delegating projects? And do you schedule time to discuss upcoming tasks with your team? Follow the three Ws to delegate tasks, and ask what needs to get done, when is the final deadline, and who is in charge of specific tasks. By clearly defining the task or project, you can be flexible with time ranges, and avoid interpretations. Specify what successful draft completions look like — versus reports that are ready for client submission.
Look for common pitfalls when it comes to proposing a new project, such as waiting for volunteers, instead of correctly choosing the right fit for the right job. Take some time to avoid playing favourites for assigning challenging and high-profile work. Don’t let trust in your leadership decisions erode because you unfairly delegate work. Your team will feel overlooked and perceive your behaviour as a barometer for predicting future actions. Instead, equip your team with the right experience and trust them to produce.
Prepare your team with a defined work scope and share it in a central drive. Establish strategic structure and systems and keep your remote workers engaged and accountable. Know your project needs, follow and meet strict deadlines, and share the project reins to prepare the foundation for future success. And, match the right employee to the right project and set the stage for team accountability. This will make it easier to find volunteers, delegate strategically, and increase the odds of accurate work on time, on cost and on budget.
Always Lead by Example
Leading by example, is more than a cliché — it’s action that sets the tone for how your team will approach tasks and projects. If you want to tap into your team’s full potential, start with a clear vision and the bigger picture, and give your best effort. Your team will listen carefully to what their leader says. But they will also look intently at what you do. Remote teams working in seclusion, or on cross-functional teams, need to share ideas and feedback for both you and the overall team. Your demonstrated ability to demonstrate openness will help your team feel comfortable with giving feedback.
This is the time to set and follow defined expectations for projects and deadlines, and create opportunities for your remote workers to take meaningful responsibility. Be flexible to challenges, and make adjustments when necessary — but stick to the playbook. It will help you navigate any storms and inspire your team to follow suit. Get in front of potential problems and communicate early, and often, to trouble-shoot and make quick decisions. Own your mistakes and be purposeful and deliberate with your decision. if you are wrong — admit you are wrong and address the mistake.
You will also need to understand that team members will approach projects in many different ways. Some are quick with ideas, some prefer to take a planning approach, and others feel they work best under pressure. Allow your team to determine their timelines and track project success to hold them accountable. By giving your team a voice in setting milestones, and even encouraging sprint timelines of three weeks or less, you are promoting ownership of joint deliverables. Keep an eye on team performance with regular performance reviews and conduct one-on-one sessions for open dialogue on opportunities for team collaboration.
Accountable teams need accountable leaders. If you want your team to perform at high standards, your actions must set the tone for their expected behaviours. Give your best efforts and lead by example — both verbally and visually.
 Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Harvard Business Review.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
 Carosa, C. (2020). How Can You Still Communicate Effectively With Staff And Coworkers While Working From Home. Forbes.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
 Neely, T. (2020). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review.
 Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Harvard Business Review.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
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.
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.  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. 
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. 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. 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.
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. Research strongly supports the link between constructive tension and creativity and innovation, with some studies finding that competition can be as valuable as collaboration. 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. 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. 
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. In fact, employees identify transparency as the number-one contributing factor to workplace happiness. Everyone knows and understands how their contributions affect the ability to achieve their collective vision and keeps them focused on the same target. 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.  This also contributes to profitability: most consumers (94%) saying they would be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency,  with a similar number (90%) saying they would stop purchasing products from brands that lack clarity. 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.
Tension exists in all workplaces, and the way it is managed determines how meaningful the resolution and outcomes will be. 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) or transparency (e.g., AIG, Enron, Tyco). This issue continues to across sectors today. 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.
 Isaksen, S.G. & Ekvall, G. (2010). Managing for innovation: The two faces of tension in creative climates. Creativity and Innovation Management, 19, 73-88.
 McGoff, C. (2017, Nov. 30). This psychological theory will motivate your team to achieve more in 2018. Inc.
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 Baril, M. B. (2019, Sept 18). Five team attributes that are killing your creative tension. Forbes.
 Label Insight. (2016). Driving long-term trust and loyalty through transparency. Label Insight Food Revolution Study.
 SproutSocial. (2019, May 2). #BrandsGetReal: Social media & the evolution of transparency. SproutSocial: From Risk to Responsibility: Social Media and the Evolution of Transparency.
 Label Insight.
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 Aaslaid,K. (2018, Nov 22). 50 examples of corporations that failed to innovate. Valuer.
 Pegoraro, R. (2019, Sept 29). Tech companies are quietly phasing out a major privacy safeguard. The Atlantic.
Integrating artificial intelligence (AI) continues to be an increasingly necessary workplace improvement to help organizations become more competitive. Automating mundane tasks streamlines business functions to improve delivery, increase quality and reduce costs, and while routine processes are ideal for AI, in a newly reimagined workforce, human contributions are equally important. Far from eliminating human workers, the number and types of people jobs created as a result of AI will increase and be in high demand. This includes technical areas such as programming and technology design, as well as roles that deal with workplace changes resulting from the increased use of AI, such as user and employee experience, ethics, and, of course, the need for AI training. Further, AI can be used to complement existing roles so that certain positions can be upskilled and supported by AI, particularly those requiring a more personal, intuitive, and empathetic touch.[i]
Acknowledging the challenges of “fusing people and technology”, Deloitte’s notes in its 2020 Global Human Capital Trends that, “The power of the social enterprise lies in its ability to bring a human focus to everything it touches…”.[ii] Organizations need to consider how AI can best serve their mission and goals and how to develop an AI ready workforce. To achieve such balance and successfully operate in this future workplace – one that is on our virtual doorstep – requires a range of diverse skills and talents melded in harmony. In other words, it will be a team sport.[iii]
Teamwork is a staple in virtually all areas including sports, military, medicine, marketing, IT, human resources, and more. Students learn the importance of working in groups at an early age and study groups long have been a fundamental component of MBA programs to foster bonds and prepare students for the inevitability of future workplace dynamics.[iv] Research on team effectiveness is prolific, and theories abound on what makes the “perfect” team. Across fields, there is growing recognition that skills and abilities, while important, have less to do with a team’s success than its psychological makeup.
Although team members each have an important functional role, too much emphasis has traditionally been placed on skills and experience rather than considering each member’s psychological role and how that affects the team.[v] [vi] This explains why the best minds don’t necessarily make the best teams and why what should, theoretically, be the “A Team” can turn out to be more of a B or even C team. Instead, the personalities of the members are better predictors of the success of the team.
For the past twenty-years, the “Big Five” personality traits have been widely accepted as appropriately representative of most individuals. Not surprisingly, these dimensions – openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extroversion/introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism[vii] – often are used to assess employees and job candidates based on the assumption that they are indicative of superior job performance. However, while there is consensus that these attributes are desirable, specific attributes may not be appropriate or necessary for all jobs.[viii] Certainly extroversion is a plus for a sales position, but it may not be a critical attribute for a librarian or mechanic. Conscientiousness may be coveted by some supervisors, but others may find that it inhibits highly desired creativity and spontaneity. And while agreeableness is important among team members, at the same time highly agreeable people may be uncomfortable posing challenging questions or playing devil’s advocate, which are critical to innovation and identifying gaps.[ix] As such, a bigger picture view that factors employees personalities in conjunction with the type of project and its ultimate goals should be considered when determining team composition.[x]
Major enterprises have come to recognize the importance of this and, in an effort to create highly effective teams, have poured extensive resources into identifying characteristic associated with the most successful teams. As a result of their research, Microsoft developed an entire curriculum based on the five key attributes they found to be common in successful teams: team purpose, collective identity, awareness and inclusion, trust and vulnerability, and constructive tension[xi]. Google hypothesized that the best teams would consist of the best people, so they initiated Project Aristotle to find out. As with most workplace groups, they found that some teams clicked immediately while others struggled to make it through a meeting. Ultimately, they identified two shared behaviors common to successful teams. First, each member spoke about the same amount. This occurred in different ways but at the end of the day, everyone had the opportunity to speak and be heard. Second, members on the “good” teams were more intuitive about how others felt and were more sensitive to team members feelings.[xii] This reinforces the importance of uniquely human roles as the use of AI continues.
Another area that characterizes effective teams is their comfort with conflict. Conflict, in reasonable quantity, is essential in teams because it helps members stay motivated and innovative, encourages creativity and communication, creates bonds, improves morale, unifies direction, and discourages groupthink.[xiii] Finally, as with all relationships, trust is always a key attribute. This is especially important in virtual teams[xiv] where members might miss each other’s nonverbal cues and other more nuanced communications.
[i] Meister, J. (2019, Jan 8). Ten HR trends in the age of artificial intelligence. Forbes.
[ii] Volini, E., Denny, B., Schwartz, J., Mallon, D., VanDurme, Y., Hauptmann,…Poynton, S. (2020, May 15). The social enterprise at work: Paradox as a path forward. Deloitte Insights, 2020 Global Human Capital Trends.
[iv] Duhigg, C. (2016, Feb 25). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. The New York Times Magazine.
[vi] Winsborough, D., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017, Jan 25). Great teams are about personalities, not just skills. Harvard Business Review.
[vii] McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60, 175-215.
[ix] LePine, J.A., Buckman, B.R., Crawford, E.R., Methot, J.R. (2011). A review of research on personality in teams: Accounting for pathways spanning levels of theory and analysis. Human Resource Management Review, 21, 311-330.
[xiii] Hogan Assessment Systems Inc.
[xiv] Ford, R.C., Piccolo, R.F., Ford, L.R. (2016). Strategies for building effective virtual teams: Trust is key. Business Horizons, 60, 25-34.
Providing a quality product or service requires the coordination and balance of hundreds of discrete, interrelated steps. An error or oversight at any point in the process can contribute to a domino effect that ultimately could have disastrous outcomes. To avoid this, organizations can benefit from scenario-based learning that provides team members’ with hand’s on experience to address issues that may arise relevant to their role and the tasks they must complete, as well as the opportunity to contribute to successful results. These scenarios can then be used to create workflows, or playbooks, for their teams to ensure consistency and positive outcomes.
Scenario-based learning, also called problem-based learning, provides an opportunity for teams to work though and identify solutions to authentic, complex or ill-structured problems.[i] This requires critical thinking and analytical, problem solving skills.[ii] Participating in the process empowers individuals and teams to consider multiple scenarios in a risk-free setting and allows them to see how project outcomes are affected by the decisions made at each stage in the process.[iii] By pre-emptively considering a wide range of scenarios before issues become real-life problems, teams can work together in an environment free from counterproductive emotions that create tension and muddy the process. Instead, they can focus on the decision-making process and how and when to escalate to achieve targeted outcomes.
The need for escalation occurs from not knowing who owns a problem. Operational scenarios alleviate this problem by working through various alternatives to identify the best and most effective route, which becomes institutionalized in the playbook. This also helps overcome poor managerial decisions by those who are more likely to pass off decision making rather than empower their team to solve their own problems.[iv] For these managers, escalation is the norm rather than the exception, when the reverse is the optimal goal.
A scenario-based playbook encourages problem solving and provides the necessary training and support to increase accountability. This increases the reliability of decision making[v] and helps alleviate the uncertainty that comes with change because team members know what is expected of them and can react immediately.[vi] Each “play” represents a way of doing something that moves the task forward in a direction that will improve outcomes.[vii] A playbook may refer to a simple but critical task or a complex project, or it might be updated to reflect a minor change or a complete overhaul. Having clear, written guidelines is critical, especially in a crisis situation, so that employees are all on the same page and work toward the same results. It makes them accountable in their roles, lets them know when issues should be escalated, and identifies the specific processes and systems that should be engaged in doing so.
This approach is more critical than ever in times of uncertainty because having defined positions, responsibilities, and processes becomes even more imperative to provide crucial consistency and accountability when it is most needed. Organizations and their leadership benefit because it allows them to plan ahead for future events, both intended and unintended. Their informed decisions can better direct allocation of staffing, budgets, and other critical resources in advance of imminent challenges, [viii]ensuring responsiveness and reliability in how actions ultimately will be undertaken.[ix] While playbooks provide the important guidelines for task completion, they also recognize the value of human involvement in decision making and how that maximizes the effectiveness of human-machine interface. This will continue to be an area of growth and development as machine learning advances and becomes more indoctrinated in the workplace.
So, if you’re not already doing it, find time to incorporate scenario-based learning as part of employee development. The benefits far outweigh the costs and, in fact, are more likely to result in a long-term cost savings. Scenario-based playbooks are a proactive means of empowering employees to action by eliminating any confusion about who’s in charge, what to do, and how to get it done. Employees and teams know what is expected of them and are knowingly and willingly accountable for their part in the process, benefitting everyone across organizational levels.
[i] Rosenbaum, H., & Shermis, M. (2010). Making a case for scenario-based learning in IS and executive education. Paper presented at the 16th Americas Conference on Information Systems, Lima, Peru.
[ii] Noroozi, AL, Khakzad, N. Khan, F., MacKinnon, S., & Abbassi, R. (2013). The role of human error in risk analysis: Application of pre- and post-maintenance procedures of process facilities. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, 119, 251-258.
[iv] Grenny, J. (2017). When to solve your team’s problems, and when to let them sort it out. Harvard Business Review.
[v] Accenture. (2016). Scenario-based planning: Exploring the best chance on success. Accenture Insights.
[vii] Notter, J. (2018). Creating a playbook for improving employee engagement. Forbes.
[viii] Office of Personnel Management. (nd). Scenario-based workforce planning. Office of Personnel Management Human Capital Framework.
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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. Team members need to know they can be wrong and at ease when having difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors without causing insecurity. While organizational culture has its influence here, individual behavior is more of a key driver.
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. 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. This is important because employees perceive the level of psychological safety to be higher when leaders have positive relationships with followers. 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 because damages to psychological safety must be repaired to ensure its continuity.
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). However, only 30% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions at work count. 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. 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. 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. High-performing teams also demonstrate higher engagement, increased motivation, better performance, and greater opportunities for learning and development.
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. 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. 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.
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.
 Jones, B.F. (2017). The science behind the growing importance of collaboration. Kellogg School of Management, KelloggInsight
 Borysenko, Karlyn. (2018). How to create your own psychological safety at work. Forbes.
 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.
 Delizonna, L., (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review.
 Frazier et al.
 Parker, K. (2018). Many Americans say women are better than men at creating safe, respectful workplaces. Pew Research Center.
 Frazier et al.
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”.
[iv] Partners In Leadership
[v] Ashkenas, R. (2012). Why accountability is so muddled, and how to un-muddle it. Harvard Business Review.
[vii] Partners In Leadership