Yes, accountability

Aug 07, 2017

Some people think of it as a four-letter word, but when accountability is backstopped by reasonable policies, it can make your business better.

If there is one issue that I have heard repeatedly in working with A/E firms over the last 27 years, it is the difficulty of getting employees to fully accept responsibility – to be held accountable for their actions and performance. This issue goes so deep that some business owners shy away from putting policies in place for fear that they won’t be able to get their employees to follow them. This practice often has the negative consequence of inconsistent quality control, compromised employee safety, and reduced project profitability.

Another very damaging and frustrating result of not enforcing company policies is the constant frustration felt by your compliant managers and employees. When employees are consistently showing up for work late, not following company processes, or not responding to requests in a timely manner, it has a detrimental effect on every one of your employees.

This frustration flows down to the lowest levels, resulting in a decrease in confidence in leadership, and creating dissent among those employees who are behaving well and following the rules.

What is and isn’t accountability? Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as “the quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.”

Imagine a culture where employees understand that policies and procedures are really just a way to implement the firm’s best practices. Best practices are developed from the combined experience of the firm’s leaders and are designed to support employees and help them be successful – to help them avoid the mistakes that the firm leaders have seen or made themselves. When employees understand this, they can more easily accept responsibility for their actions and welcome being held accountable by a firm that supports their success.

Great processes ensure that your firm is doing things the best way possible, and creates better consistency between groups, teams, and offices. With good policies and processes, and effective systems in place to easily support following them, employees will be able to see that by accepting accountability, they will perform at a higher, more successful level.

In some firm cultures, accountability has a negative or punitive connotation. The word gets thrown around with people being held “accountable” when things start to go wrong and someone needs to take the blame.

What if you could create a culture in which your employees welcomed responsibility and delivered agreed upon results? The following are five ways you can start to improve the effectiveness of your accountability and create an environment in which employees willingly feel responsible for complying with company policies. By increasing employee understanding of policies and the benefits and negative repercussions that their behavior has on the business, their colleagues, and the company’s clients, you will see greater rates of compliance and employees embracing accountability rather than avoiding responsibility.

  1. Expect leaders to follow the processes, too. Employees are always watching their leaders for examples of how to behave. They rationalize their behavior against the standards set by the managers and owners in your company. If your principals don’t follow established policies and procedures, it sets the tone for everyone else. Look at your management team’s behavior to determine if you are sending the right message to your employees, and gain commitment from your firm’s leadership to set the right example.
  2. Communicate the “why” of the policies. Believe it or not, many employees do not see the connection between their behavior and the company’s financial success. Many companies roll out new policies but don’t inform staff about why the policies are so important. Taking the time to explain why you have certain company policies can make a big difference. Many of your policies are there because you have established values and criteria about your firm’s quality of service and client’s expectations. Don’t assume your employees know why you have the policies you have. Consistent communication goes a long way toward seeing improved employee behaviors.
  3. Establish natural consequences. Sometimes employees need to experience natural repercussions for failure to comply with company policies. There needs to be clear and significant consequences for failure to do what is expected of them. Without these consequences, your compliant employees will become resentful of employees that are not dealt with. They will start to question why the policies exist in the first place, and why management does not hold the offenders accountable. This is especially important if an employee’s failure to comply is keeping others from getting their jobs done. Not all managers are skilled at or comfortable providing feedback and following through with consequences. Consider offering skill development sessions to your managers if needed. Don’t forget that positive reinforcement also encourages people to comply with policies. Consider rewards and recognition for managers and employees who successfully implement new policies and tout the positive impact of their compliance. This is also a great way to let others know you’re paying attention.
  4. Regularly monitor the status of compliance. There is a well-known saying, “That which is measured gets done.” If you want your team to increase compliance of policies and procedures, as well as hold key staff accountable for their project or team performance, you must focus on monitoring and reporting that compliance on a regular basis. This is especially true for project managers. One practice that I have seen work very well is to review the key performance metrics for each PM in regular meetings. Depending on what you want them to focus on – whether it is the percentage of employees who turn in their timesheets on time or identifying and documenting change order requests – you can go over a report of key compliance metrics, alongside the project performance metrics, in weekly or monthly meetings. I have found that if data is presented at regular meetings, staff are more likely to make sure the data is updated before the meeting. Praise the managers who follow procedures during the meeting and if necessary, call out those who have not updated their budgets, schedules, and projections, letting everyone know you are serious about monitoring their performance.
  5. Make it easy for them. Your employees may have some good reasons for not following company policies. This is especially true if there are many “offenders.” I recommend interviewing employees to determine if everyone understands your policies, is trained on how to use your systems, and is able to easily accomplish what you are asking. This exercise can improve how you do things, and enable you to remove bottlenecks to your employees getting their jobs done efficiently. A business management assessment designed to evaluate how your people, processes, and systems are functioning can go a long way toward helping you figure out where to focus.

Not only will this help you enforce your policies and see better business results, your employees will recognize that you are trying to improve the business and not just putting policies in place to police them.

Enforcing company policies does not have to be a painful experience. If policies are truly important to the success of your firm, it’s crucial to get your entire team on board with why policies are needed, and how they help the firm to be more profitable. If you can’t justify a policy against this criteria, then maybe it really isn’t necessary after all!

June Jewell is president of AEC Business Solutions, focused on developing business assessment tools and online training for project managers to help AEC firms make more money on their projects. Connect with her on LinkedIn and learn more about how to improve your project management performance at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.