Why Simplicity Is Key to Improved Employee Performance

Article | Accountability Insights

by | Oct 30, 2020

Rather than implementing complex initiatives to fix performance problems, organizational leaders must get back to the basics.

Personal accountability happens when individual employees rise above hurdles and take ownership of achieving desired results. It’s a simple concept, but in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape in which companies must disrupt or risk suffering disruption, it’s easy for accountability to get caught up in the complexity of fast-paced, multi-tiered agendas.

Take for example an app company that is updating its user interface in an attempt to meet consumer demands and offer a more personalized, on-demand experience. Marketers begin launching campaigns in a flurry to build consumer interest and leaders make promises about “the future of the brand” in press interviews, but no one is communicating with the developers. Meanwhile, half of the developers believe improved personalization is the goal and the other half are focused on usability. This lack of communication leads to misalignment. Before long, the product launch falls behind schedule.

In instances such as this, rates of employee engagement and ownership may rise temporarily — when marketers take proactive measures to launch a high-performing campaign and developers commit to delivering innovation at speed, for instance — but often in siloed environments, directed toward different agendas.

Over time, this type of environment fuels the blame game and excuse-making, often veiled under the guise of “explaining.” When there’s no sense of control, it becomes easy for all members of an organization to point to staffing shortages, budget cuts, hands-off leadership, and other external factors as the root of performance problems.

This atmosphere of misguided accountability is just as harmful to an organization as no accountability at all. To reap the benefits of a true culture of accountability, leaders must cut through the noise and get back to the basics.

How Simple Steps Lead to Dynamic Results

After more than three decades of working with organizations across the globe, we’ve pared our solution down to the basic elements of accountability, and for good reason: We’ve tried complicated. It doesn’t work.

Achieving results through accountability requires clarity around topline organizational objectives. While this sounds like common sense, you might be surprised to learn that our Culture Advantage Index revealed that 95% of senior executive teams do not effectively clarify their organizations’ top priorities—leaving employees with a vague sense of direction and little understanding of how their daily actions impact organizational performance. To compound this issue, nearly 77% of employees say that their company will not achieve their key results without a significant shift in the way employees think and act.

How do leaders create clarity? Boil down top objectives to three to five meaningful, measurable, memorable Key Results. It’s up to leaders to establish a direct line of sight between each employee’s work and the achievement of these results.

Consider this example: the CEO of a large multi-location retailer realized in the midst of a multiyear financial downturn that something needed to change. He launched countless complex, multi-tiered initiatives aimed at improving individual, team, and collective performance — all to no avail. Desperate for a solution, he collaborated with the organization’s executive team to host a string of accountability workshops. These communicated to employees the role each one of them played in driving success through accountability.

Every employee, from the C-suite down to recent entry-level hires, was challenged to follow four simple Steps To Accountability:

  1. Remain proactive in seeing critical performance gaps.
  2. Take psychological ownership of bridging those gaps.
  3. Practice creative problem-solving to develop solutions.
  4. Do what it takes to achieve key results by implementing effective solutions.

It didn’t take long before the emergence of compelling stories of veteran employees and young hires alike exhibiting greater personal accountability. In one instance, a 19-year-old, part-time sales associate noticed that the optometrists at his location had completely empty schedules for the day. Rather than sit back, he began brainstorming ways to address this problem. He knew there were countless patients in the system that had missed their appointments in the past year or were overdue — what if he could get them to fill the empty slots? The young associate picked up the phone and began calling patients. Within a matter of minutes, he had secured a visit from a family of four. They came in that day, had their eyes examined, and each purchased a new pair of glasses.

Stories like this perpetuated across the company, inspiring others to take accountability and sustaining momentum in the weeks and months following the accountability workshops. As a result, the company completely reversed its poor performance. Sales spiked, all because employees began consistently demonstrating the four simple Steps To Accountability that we’ve outlined in Propeller: Accelerating Change by Getting Accountability Right.

Removing the Blinders and Putting Success Back in Sight

It can be easy for leadership teams to fall into the trap of responding to high-pressure, rapidly-evolving markets with a variety of complex corporate agendas or a flurry of new initiatives. But with chaos comes both misalignment and a higher likelihood of stress. Stress inhibits the ability to think clearly and function at peak performance, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as cortical inhibition. In the business sense, cortical inhibition can prevent even the sharpest of leaders from seeing what’s right in front of them.

In today’s fast-paced, complicated world, we all need — and crave — simplicity. A straightforward, smart plan clears the clutter and allows leaders to dig deeper and reveal the root of their problems while progressing the achievement of critical topline business results.

This article was authored in collaboration with Craig Hickman, author of Propeller: Accelerating Change by Getting Accountability Right and The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability.