Accountability in the workplace is something every manager wants to have. Accountability has a clear link to higher work performance, but experts indicate that it also results in improved competency and commitment to work, increased employee morale, and work satisfaction (Source: The U.S. Office of Personnel Management). It’s also known to improve creativity and innovation because the employee is more invested in the future of the organization.

However, according to a study (Source: AMA Enterprise, 2013), leaders recognize a significant lack of accountability on the part of employees. In fact, 21 percent of respondents stated that unaccountable employees make up 30-50 percent of their workforce.

What exactly is accountability in the workplace, and why is it essential to high performance? What can leaders do to create a culture of accountability in their organization?

Accountability in the Workplace

High-performance teams and organizations empower employees to take ownership, they foster a culture of accountability, and they have a high levels of trust between all levels of the organization. Furthermore, there’s a strong link between these three values and characteristics of high performance.

Ownership is about taking initiative and doing the right thing for the business. It’s about taking responsibility for results and not assuming it’s not someone else’s responsibility. At minimum, taking ownership means that if you recognize something is material to achieving results, that you take the initiative to bring it to the attention of the right people. If ownership is about taking initiative, accountability is about follow through and getting done what you said you’d get done. It’s recognizing that other team members are dependent on the results of your work and not wanting to let them down. It’s about good, open, pro-active communication to keep team members informed on the status of your commitments because you respect that the results of your work has a direct impact on their ability to make their own commitments. Ultimately, when team members consistently demonstrate ownership and accountability, trust is formed.

Why accountability is essential

Without accountability, execution suffers. This happens in two ways.

The first is that when we don’t hold ourselves accountable to getting work done well and on time, there’s a tendency to become even more lenient and forgiving for slippages. A day becomes a week, a week a month. If it happens once, it’s that little bit more acceptable for it to happen again.

The second is that when we don’t hold ourselves accountable, the impact is exponential. Your delay becomes your team’s delay. The work they had planned gets impacted and that work potentially has further downstream effects. The post, The Importance of Accountability on Teams, explains the lesson of punctuality on the Canadian ski team: when 10 people are waiting for you, if you are 2 minutes late – it’s not just 2 minutes lost – the team has lost 22 minutes

Similarly, lack of accountability can snowball in a team, department and organization. Tolerating missed deadlines, lack of punctuality and un-finished work has the tendency to make this behaviour “no big deal”. People learn that the real deadline is a week from the published one; that consistently being 10 min late for a meeting is the norm; that sub-par work is acceptable in the interest of “getting it done” (which should not be confused with pushing yourself to ship and not over-work a project). The cumulative impact across an organization can be substantial. One clear way to understand the impact of poor accountability is to imagine accountability in the context of the military. This HBR post, “What Ever Happened to Accountability”, Thomas Ricks covers the impact that a move away from accountability had in the United States Army during the Vietnam war. Ultimately, lack of accountability at the top level trickled down to many levels and had disastrous consequences.

How to Create a Culture of Accountability

Here are some of the things leaders can do to help create a culture of accountability.

Make accountability a lived value

Make accountability a part of your team’s normal way of operating. Talk about it, share ideas, come to a common consensus about what accountability means in the workplace, and then use that as a foundation everyone works from as they make accountability an organizational goal.

Most importantly, make sure that accountability is more than a stated characteristic of how your team operates. Accountability needs to have consequences which are both positive and negative and those consequences need to be consistently applied. Research consistently contends that business leaders lose the most kudos when poor performance isn’t dealt with and poor performers are able to continue without repercussion.

Goals are at the heart of accountability

An important step here is to break things down into meaningful goals and measurable metrics for everyone in the organization. Without proper goals, it’s also going to be nearly impossible to effectively enforce accountability.

Goals provide clear expectations for everyone on what’s expected. The less room for ambiguity the better – so goals need to be specific and measurable. In a team environment, this is especially important because of the dependency on each others’ work and the exponential impact of not meeting expectations.

Another important outcome of having goals is defining what is NOT going to be a priority. One of the biggest reasons we fail to live up to our commitments is because we put too much on our plate and become de-focused on key priorities. So goals need to be realistic. We can’t create accountability if what we’re asking people to be accountable for isn’t realistic or achievable.

Show the numbers

There are 3 ways that showing key metrics creates workplace accountability.

First, showing the number declares ownership. Every goal should be measurable and sharing this is a great way to demonstrate commitment to the result and communicate a clear expectation to other team members.

Second, showing the numbers creates some healthy workplace competition. Achieving goals and receiving recognition is a positive consequence of accountability. Missing a goal that’s openly shared with the team has the effect of making us double down the next period to do better.

Third, showing goals helps keep people focused on priorities. It’s easy to get distracted by new projects, but showing goals helps you hold yourself accountable and helps others hold you accountable as well.

Make accountability everyone’s responsibility

Ownership is about taking responsibility and taking initiative whether or not the responsibility is clearly yours. There’s a tendency in group settings for diffusion of responsibility whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present. In the context of accountability, this may mean you don’t see yourself as responsible for holding others accountable for timeliness, quality and strong communication. Perhaps it isn’t your responsibility – there’s someone more senior in the meeting or team, but this is where taking ownership becomes important. Resist the temptation to ignore when someone on your team needs to be held accountable. Owning this aspect of your culture is key so that others can adopt the same attitude.

In terms of having the dialogue, there are likely going to be uncomfortable moments. These two posts from HBR have good tips on how to handle difficult conversations and conflict strategies for nice people.

Build trust through support and encouragement

Trust is an important factor that contributes to accountability. In low-trust environments, people are quick to focus on the blame, not the solution. In high trust environments, people focus on the solution, not the blame.

A key reason people avoid accountability is as a self-defense mechanism, because they’re worried about what might happen if things go wrong. A person with low self-confidence — and perhaps bad past experiences — will fear accountability due to fear of messing things up and the imagined consequences, while a person naturally more confident knows they can get up and try again if things go wrong. So give praise where praise is due, to build up confidence in your staff, so people aren’t afraid to take things on.

One thing you can do to help individuals that resist accountability is to help them understand the difference between accountability and making a judgment about how well they’re doing their job. Failure to meet an objective is OK if the individual let the team know with as much notice as possible, why it happened, how they intend to correct it and to ask for help if it’s needed. Approaching failure in this way is demonstrating accountability. There’s an opportunity to learn from it and seek coaching or support to ensure future success. In this case, the individual is doing their job well. It’s OK to fail from time to time. You just need to be upfront and proactive in your communication of it.

Creating accountable employees delivers numerous business benefits: better execution, lower employee turnover and more creativity and innovation. Overall, shifting to constructive accountability may require a culture change within your team or organization, but leaders, managers and employees will find the results well worth the effort.

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