Making Goals and Accountabilities Clear to Your Team Is Leadership Job #1

During the Second World War, one of England’s basic defensive measures included the removal and switching of signposts, milestones, and railway station signs to confuse the enemy.  Unfortunately, too many people managers unknowingly confuse their teams because they do not make goals and accountabilities clear enough to their team.

Goals and Accountabilities Matter

Good managers create clarity; bad managers allow ambiguity, misalignment, and frustration.

  • A recent study by Comparably found that 42% of workers across every gender, age group, and function rated “having unclear goals” as their top source of stress – almost three times higher than having a “bad manager.”
  • Our own organizational alignment research found that goal clarity and commitment accounts for 31% of the difference between high and low performing teams.
What Happens When Goals and Accountabilities Are Unclear?

When goals and accountabilities are unclear, it makes it difficult for employees to feel valued – a key to higher levels of employee engagement. Ambiguity makes it challenging for employees to feel confident about what matters most, to know how they are doing, and to understand when to seek help.  Unclear goals and accountabilities directly lead to uncertain, ineffective, or misaligned:

  • Priorities
  • Plans
  • Projects
  • Resource allocation
  • Methods of operation
  • Ways of behaving
  • Measurement, hiring, training, reward, and recognition practices

Good managers create clarity; bad managers allow ambiguity, misalignment, and frustration. Ambiguity makes it challenging for employees to feel confident about what matters most, to know how they are doing, and to understand when to seek help.

Setting Effective Goals

Effective goals provide clarity, focus, motivation, and accountability. Goals that are too difficult create employee disengagement; goals that are too easy do not motivate maximum effort or higher levels of performance. To set effective goals at work, make sure that they are not only SMART, but also have the following high performance characteristics:

  • Clear, Simple, and Few: There should be no doubt about the direction and focus of what you want people to achieve. Try not to have more than two or three key goals at any one time.
  • Understood and Believable Enough: People must be able to articulate what they are trying to accomplish. They must also believe that the goals are possible.
  • Just Possible: Different than achievable, effective high-performance goals are a bit of a stretch. People should perceive the objectives to be challenging but within their control in order to motivate the next level of performance.
  • Meaningful, Fulfilling and Relevant: Goals should be tied to intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and be proportional to the achievement of the objectives.
Creating a Culture of High Accountability

What is accountability at work? Organizational accountability is about consistently delivering on a commitment – in other words it is about taking responsibility for achieving goals and outcomes and it should be a value modeled at all levels of an organization. From our perspective, accountability at work depends on five best practices:

1. Having Shared Expectations

Team leaders and employees should have a shared understanding of the expected outcomes, timelines, key stakeholders, roles and responsibilities, scope, success metrics, and next steps. There should be no question about what matters most and who is doing what. The tactical plan can be left up to your direct reports to work out as long as you keep in touch regularly to answer questions and monitor progress.

2. Ensuring Competence and Commitment

Too many goals are missed because employees lack the right combination of skills, knowledge, resources, confidence, and motivation to successfully complete their tasks. Understand where each member of your team is today on the developmental scale, discuss what is needed for success, and then help fill in the gaps in a way that makes sense.

  • Competence

    We define competence as “the demonstration of sequenced, coordinated actions that accomplishes a particular desired outcome.” We believe that competence is goal or task specific and is contingent upon the requirements of a particular outcome. To set your team up for success, make sure that everyone has the right level of goal- and task-specific knowledge and skills to get the job done in a way that makes sense.

  • Commitment

    We believe that commitment is attitudinal; it is the “want to do” frame of mind that helps someone persevere in the face of missteps or failure in terms of motivation and self-confidence.

    The motivation perspective asserts that a person’s energy comes from what they expect to gain as a result of achieving a specific goal. We define motivation at work as “the desire to overcome obstacles, exercise power, and strive to do something difficult to the highest level possible.” It is your job as a leader to create an environment that increases a person’s willingness to put forth effort in pursuit of desired outcomes.

    The self-confidence perspective suggests that people monitor and self-evaluate their own performance based on desired outcomes. When there is a large discrepancy between the desired outcome and person’s performance, it causes discouragement, negativity, and a loss of faith in their ability to succeed. This loss of confidence often results in lower attention and effort.

    Your role as a leader is to (1) help your team members understand that self-judgment is normal, and needed, to develop skills and self-reliance and (2) Give your team members constructive feedback on performance in a way that helps to increase their self-confidence for a particular outcome.

3. Monitoring Progress and Providing Support

Managers should hold regular team meetings and regular one-on-one’s with each team member to help everyone stay on the same page, evaluate progress, remove roadblocks, solicit feedback, and provide support. You and your team should always know where they are headed, how things are going, and what they need to be set up for success.

4. Establishing Rewards and Consequences

It is a manager’s responsibility to consistently and fairly reinforce desired results and behaviors while also applying meaningful consequences for misaligned outcomes and actions. Aligned and proportionate rewards and recognition can play an important role in creating a culture of high accountability.

An Added Wrinkle

Cross-functional teams and matrixed environments can make it more difficult to create clear and agreed upon goals and accountabilities.  In some dispersed and overlapping environments, employees are able to hide failures by blaming others, citing circumstances beyond their control, shifting roles, or playing politics.

To counteract these challenges, managers need to make an all-out effort to identify and counteract any goal or role ambiguity across teams.  Make sure that you clearly establish the individual who will be ultimately responsible for each goal, and name project sponsors who will oversee the goal from beginning to end.

The Bottom Line

Accountability is an essential for high performance and employee engagement. Can you honestly say that your goals and accountabilities are understood, believable, and implementable enough?

About the author

LSA Global is a business consulting and training firm that helps high growth companies grow 58% faster and be 72% more profitable by powerfully aligning organizational culture and key talent with business strategies. Headquartered in Redwood City, California, they define organizational alignment as the optimum combination of business strategy, corporate culture and talent to maximize performance.

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