The vast majority of employees lack a clear idea of what their employers expect from them, new research shows.

In the Florida State University study, less than 20 percent of employees are certain they know what is expected of them at work each day, with the majority reporting varying levels of clarity concerning responsibilities, ranging from "some" to "complete" ambiguity.

The study, which assessed the opinions of more than 750 blue- and white-collar employees across multiple job environments, concluded that employee accountability problems cost American organizations hundreds of millions of dollars each year, in both direct and indirect costs.

“When employees aren't sure what’s expected of them, the results simply just cannot be positive, especially when the complexity of work and the pace of change is taken into consideration," said Allison Batterton, one of the study's co-authors.

The researchers discovered a number of significant differences between those who knew what was expected of them and those who didn’t. Specifically, 60 percent of those uncertain about their responsibilities reported higher levels of mistrust with leadership, while 50 percent had higher levels of overall work frustration. In addition, 40 percent felt they were being overworked, while 33 percent were more likely to search for a new job within the next year.

Most respondents cited a lack of leadership as the reason responsibilities were unclear. Specifically, employees say management fails to be forthcoming and proactively develop communications, until a lack of accountability triggers an organizational crisis.

“It seems the more that communication is needed, the less likely it is provided," said professor Wayne Hochwarter, one of the study's co-authors. "No wonder so many employees feel completely lost at work these days."

Hochwarter said most employees want to do a good job and contribute to their organizations.

"Perhaps it’s overly simplistic, but this can only take place when employees know what’s expected," he said. "Sadly, many do not, and the situation appears to be getting worse rather than better."

The researchers offer managers a four-step approach to dealing with accountability failures:

  • Set up a formal communication system using the most current and user-friendly technology, and make sure all employees are able to use it effectively.
  • Include employee accountability in both the supervisor's and employee's performance evaluations.
  • Develop informal accountability networks, such as a buddy system, that allow employees real-time access to information needed to effectively focus attention on tasks considered most important for that particular time.
  • Make accountability proactive, rather than reactive.
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