Accountability and the Challenge of the Remote Worker

I talk to many leaders who ask: How do I hold remote workers accountable? And: How can I manage somebody when I can’t see them in person and can’t check up on what they’re doing?

Those two questions offer leaders an important opportunity for self-assessment on their own personal accountability. What do I mean by that? I mean that if you are aspiring to be an accountable leader, and either or both of these questions keep you up at night, you may have some work to do in terms of your own level of commitment to the people who report to you.

Accountability: The Foundation of Organizational Improvement

Let me be blunt: I had to do this same work myself. I was ten years into studying team performance before I identified that accountability was the non-negotiable foundation of all team and organizational improvement. It was another ten years before I was able to move past the side of accountability that is filled with statements like “I am going to hold them accountable,” “I need my people to be more accountable,” and “I wish people would just do what they say they are going to do!”

All of these statements connect to tactical commitments. They connect to doing. They connect to checking things off of a to-do list. They connect to using accountability as a whip to get people to work harder, do more, and produce more money for someone else. If that is your outlook, let me invite you to consider the possibility that:

  • Accountable leadership is not about “holding people accountable,” whether they are working inside the room that you occupy, working down the hall, working in a different building, or working on the peak of Mount Everest.
  • Accountable leadership is not about checking up on people. If this is truly the kind of person you have to check up on just to make sure the work gets done, you hired the wrong person. Period.
  • Accountability is about inspiring people to follow through on their commitments to others, because they see that you follow through on your commitments to them. The only way to make that happen is to focus on relational commitments, not tactical ones.

There is nothing wrong with tactical commitments. We just need to notice what they serve: a to-do list. Relational commitments, by contrast, serve a relationship. They demand a change in how you think about people, and specifically how you think about the people who report to you.

Relational Commitments Start with You

So. Let’s say you are a leader struggling with a new and unfamiliar set of circumstances. You are managing a team you used to be able to connect with in person, but now cannot connect with in person. I have a challenge for you: Instead of fixating on whether they are fulfilling the tactical commitments, ask yourself whether YOU are fulfilling relational commitments to THEM … and how they KNOW THAT.

What kinds of relational commitments am I talking about? Let’s start with a big one, a commitment that, like all the important relational commitments, does not need to be spoken out loud to be part of your job description as an accountable leader: personal development.

How committed are you to developing each individual member of your team to their fullest potential? How do the members of your team know you are committed to that?

  • What actions have you personally taken to fulfill that commitment over the past, say, sixty days?
  • For instance, have you identified and discussed each team member’s short-term and long-term career goals and life goals?
  • Have you talked in private with each person about setting up a plan for the achievement of those goals?
  • Have you taken any steps to expand your own skill base and your own leadership toolkit, given the new situations in which you and your team find yourselves, so that you can support those personal development plans as effectively as possible in the era of remote working?
  • Have you pointed people toward online courses, books, or webinars that will help them to grow, to develop new skills, and to contribute at a higher level?

Helping people to be the best they can possibly be is an essential element of your job description as a leader. It is a commitment, which means it is no matter what. And here is the important part: No matter where they are working, they will respond differently to you as an individual, to the team, and to the organization if they know they are working in an environment where a commitment to their development is upheld consistently by the leadership.

Now, that is just one relational commitment–but the main thing I want you to notice is that it is not the same as a tactical commitment, which is what we may be used to focusing on. This kind of commitment is not about finishing a report or cleaning a restroom or closing a sale, or anything else that can be knocked off a checklist. It’s about the quality of the relationship between you and your team members. And this commitment has to start with you, the leader.

Let me ask you something. Which employee is more likely to be productive and conscientious and effective when working remotely: someone who sees clear evidence from their manager of a “no matter what” commitment to their personal and professional development? Or someone who has never seen any evidence of that commitment?

It is up to us as leaders to create a working environment where there is tangible evidence of our non-negotiable relational commitments to each member of the team.

Such an environment is shaped not by our words, but by our actions. People in these environments think differently, act towards each other differently, and get a different result. When our team has been taught by example to think differently, to act toward customers and each other differently, and to get a different result, then we will find that they are committed to us. We will have inspired accountability as a foundation principle of the relationship.

And here we come upon the great secret about organizational accountability. You don’t mandate it. You create it. Accountability can never be mandated. It can only be inspired.

If you can inspire accountability by upholding strong relational commitments, that means that in the good times your positive results are going to be off the charts … and in the tough times, you are going to be one of the organizations that not only survives, but thrives. This, I believe, is a lesson more important now, as countless teams and leaders transition to remote working models, than it has ever been in our history.


*** Want more high-level information on dealing with your remote workforce? Join Sam for a free Executive Forum on Accountability and a Remote Workforce. November 20, 2020 at 10:00 AM Central Time. Register here.

(This is the first in a series of articles on accountability and the remote workforce.)


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