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Is There an Accountability Problem Where You Work?

What to do when some coworkers are not held accountable.

Key points

  • Unfairness in accountability is a common phenomenon in the workplace.
  • Strategies for handling uneven accountability depend on how or whether it affects you directly.
  • Supervisors have an especially important responsibility to seek out and address perceptions of unfairness.

I only get calls to work with teams when there are problems. I frequently start by interviewing or surveying the team members as to what they see as the primary problem. In my experience, two topics clearly top the list: communication and lack of accountability. The topic of communication is complicated and is the focus of some of my other posts. Here, let’s unpack accountability.

When I inquire what the respondents mean by problems with accountability, the responses generally come down to perceptions that some coworkers are allowed to act poorly in some way without negative consequences. This might entail not pulling their weight (amount of work), doing their work poorly (quality of work), breaking the rules, or acting like jerks.

Sometimes the perception is that only particular team members are allowed to “get away with” whatever they’re doing wrong. In other cases the perception is that no one is held accountable, leaving the respondent feeling like one of the few responsible workers on the team. In both types of accountability problems, it feels unfair to the respondent that they are contributing more in some way than are others, without corresponding consequences. If any of this sounds familiar, what can you do?

When Lack of Accountability Directly Affects Your Work

If a particular coworker’s poor performance or behavior directly affects your work, you certainly have a vested interest in that coworker being held accountable. The key is to frame your concerns that way, and focus exclusively on the ways in which your work is affected. For example, one such effect may be that your work is made more difficult, but if that is your only focus, you could be seen as simply complaining that you don’t want to put in much effort. If possible, focus on how the quality of your work is negatively affected, especially if that effect trickles downstream and affects others.

With whom are you having this conversation about effects on your work? Start with the offending coworker. Be sure to stay focused on your experience (sentences that start with “I”) rather than on conclusions about the other person (sentences that start with “you,” which tend to automatically elicit defensive responses). The hope is that your coworker comes to view improving their performance as being helpful to you, and so that becomes their motivation for doing so. Note that you are likely to be thinking, “I’m just asking you to do your job, not go above and beyond the bare minimum.” Instead of seeking the satisfaction of saying something like that, stay focused on the desired end result. Accusing someone of not doing their job is unlikely to rally them to improvement.

If this conversation with your coworker fails to stimulate change, you need to decide whether a follow-up conversation might be fruitful. When you get to the point of asking yourself that question and the answer clearly seems to be “no,” it’s time to escalate the conversation to your coworker’s supervisor. If you interact frequently with your coworker, think carefully about how going to their supervisor might affect those interactions.

It may be advisable to let your coworker know in advance that you plan to have such a conversation, but do so in a way that is not implied as a threat or even a criticism. For example, “We’ve talked about how your work affects mine, and it doesn’t seem to me that we’ve made enough progress in improving the situation. I’m thinking of pulling in Monica to see if she might help us. What do you think?”

In an ideal situation, your coworker would join you in that conversation with their supervisor, and the focus would be on problem-solving versus defending against accusation. Again, use sentences that start with “I,” and communicate that your motivation is the improvement of everyone’s work for the benefit of the finished products.

When the Lack of Accountability Doesn’t Directly Affect Your Work

In this case, the main problem is probably a sense of unfairness. That is, why should some individuals be allowed to get away with poor performance or bad behavior? Because this unfairness does not directly affect your work, however, does it make sense to maintain feelings of upset because of it? Yes it’s unfair, and “not right,” but is focusing on it or complaining about it likely to improve the situation or your reputation?

Are you feeling some envy in that you would like to slack off some, or behave similarly, but for some reason aren’t following through with that wish? If “yes,” what is stopping you? If “no, not in a million years,” then take pride in the fact that you have higher personal standards and focus your energy on productive topics rather than what some coworkers are or are not doing.

When You Are the Supervisor

If you supervise other people, assume that some of them perceive accountability problems and a sense of unfairness in how you treat individual team members. It’s tempting to ignore the possibility; after all, who wants to “stir up” trouble? In reality, the trouble is already there and ignoring it doesn’t help. In an ideal scenario, earnest investigation reveals no such perceptions of accountability problems or unfairness. Wouldn’t that be a great relief?

I’m a strong advocate for regularly planned anonymous surveys in which supervisors ask supervisees about their concerns (as well as what they perceive as positives). Processing such feedback can be difficult and elicit a sense of defensiveness. As their supervisor they will be framing problems as things that you are or are not doing. However, remember that that is their frame of reference for their own experience and the stories they create about why things are the way they are. Those stories are not necessarily accurate, but learning of them allows you the opportunity to help your team create more accurate stories. Remember that the focus is on improvement in team functioning (and ultimately how you are viewed as a leader) rather than finger pointing and defensiveness.

In conclusion, perceptions of unevenness in coworker performance or behavior is common, and if there are not obvious consequences for poor actions, a lack of accountability is frequently the conclusion. Look for ways to address these situations directly, rather than let them fester and serve as continual fuel for the gossip engine.

More from Michael W Wiederman Ph.D.
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