You want goals that will stretch you but also not set yourself up for failure.

When a pregnant 17-year-old walked into Rachel Weber’s office a few years ago seeking help, the career counsellor couldn’t imagine a bigger challenge.

The girl already had a toddler at home. She wanted to finish high school. So Weber did what she did best: She listened and helped the young woman make a plan.  Weber , a counsellor at the government-funded Workforce Connection program in Ruidoso, New Mexico, helps people learn skills and find jobs, often for the first time in years — or the first time ever. 

Weber created a plan for the girl. First, she’d finish high school. Then she’d enter a job training program. And finally, she’d get a job to support her two toddlers. And Weber would be there every step to urge the girl along and help her stay focused on her goals.

“A lot of kids in that situation would have dropped out and felt hopeless,” Weber recalls. “But she set goals … and worked towards them.”

It sounds simple, right? Set some goals and then find a way to achieve them. Myriad studies show that setting goals, finding ways to get them done and implementing measures of success — otherwise known as accountability — is  a core element to the most innovative and successful businesses. But it’s something rarely done well in the business world.

Maybe the biggest impediment for accountability is that it has become another victim of management speak, akin to synergy or thinking outside the box — words and phrases that every chief executive officer throws into a speech at the annual meeting.

Too easy? Or too hard?

Nearly every workplace requires employees set goals, often through a yearly review with the boss. The normal inclination of most people when setting their mandated goals is to list tasks which are easy to achieve. Sure, it may seem like you’ve made your job easier, but employees who are allowed to set simple objectives will get bored quickly. This can become a direct link to decreased productivity — and often a way to practically ensure a good employee will head to a competitor.

Then there are the managers who insist on throwing down impossible-to-succeed objectives. You can see where this is going: Those unattainable orders will only lead to employee frustration.

“You want goals that will stretch you but also not set yourself up for failure,” said said Kurt Dirks, professor of management leadership at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis, Missouri.  Genuine accountability can even boost workplace productivity, he added.  

Managers often also fail in making clear who’s responsible for targets and who will keep track of them, said Sunil “Sunny” Misser, CEO of AccountAbility, a London-based research and consulting firm. This is especially true for middle managers who report to multiple bosses and may have no idea which vice president is keeping track of their metrics of success.

“Once you figure out what the person will be responsible for and to whom, then you can figure out the how,” said Misser, who works in AccountAbility’s New York City office.

Conversely, employees need to know that their bosses — and the company overall — will be held accountable for failures. But that is not the norm. Goals set by new CEOs, for instance, are rarely followed up if they fall into the loss column.

“People need to know they have the freedom to hold the organization accountable,” Misser said.

Poorly run meetings are a key culprit of follow-up failures. Yes, meetings. Many companies work out new goals and ideas during brainstorming sessions where nobody is assigned tasks and deadlines, said Dirks. People then view those gatherings as a wasteland where ideas never leave the development stage.

Those sessions ought to be followed up with objectives and decisions on who will make sure they get done (aka, accountability in action). That should be followed with manager follow-up to be sure the tasks are on schedule and another meeting once they’re completed.

Global differences

Of course, accountability is measured differently in various parts of the world. In the Middle East, for instance, there are more family run and state-owned businesses — they are less likely to hold higher-ups responsible for poor performance.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, employees are often held to goals with religious-style devotion, and failure comes with all the spoils of shame. But businesses in those countries often fail to hold managers accountable, as employees in places like India and Japan are unlikely to call out their bosses for missing a target.

Holding employees, and the entire company, accountable for goals will obviously help achieve tasks, but there’s also evidence that suggests it can help employees innovate. Indeed, the very makeup of the company structure and the way goals are handed down can help generate new ideas, according to a June 14 piece by Robert Simons, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. 

An example Simons offers: a $2 billion computer software company tells employees to imagine they fall in a series of concentric rings, with consumers in the centre. In other words, customer complaints and suggestions set goals the company should achieve, and employees were held accountable for whether they succeeded in solving a customer’s problem. This approach resulted in 70% of customers buying the company’s products again — a customer loyalty average usually only seen by companies with a cult following like Apple.

Weber, the career counsellor, has her own accountability success story. After she helped set goals for the pregnant 17-year-old mom, she watched the girl graduate from high school and complete a job training program. The girl then earned a full-time position at the work experience program. She became the front desk administrator and soon after, a manager.

The girl succeeded at her goals mostly because of her work ethic, Weber recalls. “She had that desire deep down to provide for her family. Sometimes she felt helpless, but she kept working. She had goals, and she hit them.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name Kurt Dirks. This has been fixed.