Owning It: A Culture Of Accountability Drives Success
Businesses succeed at a higher level and staff members have a better opportunity to excel when everyone takes ownership of their work. Accordingly, most people would strongly agree if you asked them whether workplace accountability is an important and admirable goal.
So why does the term “accountability” have such a bad reputation? The topic rubs people the wrong way because it often evokes unpleasant experiences for everyone involved. Leaders often report that their employees shirk accountability while workers complain that managers use it as a fear-tactic. There isn’t even a consensus about what it looks like in action.
Consequently, companies have wrestled with defining accountability and how to achieve it for decades. The statistics bear this problem out. According to a Gallup report that pulled data from millions of workers:
- Only 21 percent of employees strongly agree they have performance metrics within their control.
- Only two in ten employees believe that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.
Additional studies show that:
- 70 percent of employees feel their managers aren’t objective in how they evaluate their performance.
- 69 percent of employees don’t feel they’re living up to their potential.
Clearly, accountability is negatively impacting many companies. But accountability itself isn’t the problem; the thornier issue is how the concept is implemented in a workplace. If it’s weaponized, employees will resist it. But when CEOs introduce accountability as the basis for a dynamic culture, it is a powerful and positive agent for organizational success.
Why Accountability Is an Important Part of Culture
Leaders’ most significant mistake in this area is not holding people accountable until things go wrong. They shouldn’t put accountability into play after someone fumbles a responsibility. Instead, it should kick in before goals are missed and even before projects are in motion.
In Winning with Accountability, Henry J. Evans writes:
“Successful organizations front-load accountability into their strategy. Doing so breeds better relationships, eliminates surprises, and vastly improves job satisfaction and performance.”
CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman concurs, but he takes a deeper approach to this concept. He believes that accountability should be embedded into every company’s culture as the basis for all employee behavior.
“Without doing that,” he says, “our efforts to build a strong culture amount to little more than wishful thinking.”
An organization’s culture is reflected in how staff members work and interact. So when leaders weave accountability into their company culture, it’s clear to everyone that taking ownership of one’s actions is “the way we do things here.” It’s a priority, and it’s something to be proud of.
In addition, leaders secure buy-in from their staff by making accountability a positive standard to uphold rather than a “gotcha” blame-game.
When appropriately integrated into workplace culture, accountability provides the framework for trust, support, and a commitment to achievement.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management lists the following positive results of practicing a constructive approach to accountability:
- Improved performance
- More employee participation and involvement
- Increased feelings of competency
- Increased employee commitment to the work
- More creativity and innovation
- Higher employee morale and job satisfaction
Teams pull together when accountability is a standard upheld by everyone in the organization. Coworkers are more likely to encourage one another and celebrate everyone’s successes. Feedback isn’t regarded as criticism; it’s expected and appreciated because everyone wants to nail their objectives.
Employees empowered with accountability take more pride in what they do and feel more closely aligned with company goals. Lack of ownership can reduce employees’ potential for achievement, but the sky’s the limit when accountability becomes their default mindset. That one characteristic empowers them to succeed at a higher level in every undertaking.
Accountability is frequently confused with responsibility, even though the words aren’t synonymous. The main difference between the two terms is that responsibility can be shared or delegated while accountability cannot.
- Responsibility refers to the obligation to perform a task.
Accountability means being answerable for the outcome of the task.
- Responsibility is imposed.
Accountability is accepted.
- Responsibility may or may not be measured as part of an employee’s performance.
Accountability should be measured in performance reviews.
If a person is responsible, it means they’re supposed to get the job done. But someone who fails to complete a responsibility might try to explain the situation away:
“I thought you had this!”
“It’s just the way the market is right now.”
“The other department didn’t follow through.”
In contrast, accountable people do their best to deliver results and then own the consequences. Being accountable goes beyond having the responsibility to do something. It’s not until someone takes ownership of the outcome of their commitment that they become accountable.
The Cost of Negative Accountability
The basis of accountability should be to inspire people to excel—not to intimidate them. But some companies opt for a fear-based culture to exact results. In this kind of environment, everyone defaults to CYA mode because leaders will hold their feet to the fire if they underperform. Employees constantly look over their shoulders and deflect blame. Consequently, bad habits manifest, and output suffers.
Ron Carucci sums up fear-based accountability in Harvard Business Review:
“The scorekeeping nature of accountability yields a built-in negativity bias, where leaders reflexively hunt for shortfalls, and the tallying usually ends with a forced categorization — a rating system of numbers or labels, sometimes stack-ranking employees against their peers.”
The following are signs of negative accountability in the workplace:
- Everyone is hyper-focused on daily personal responsibilities instead of working together to achieve team goals, risking innovative ideas, or enjoying their work.
- Managers specialize in assigning tasks, scrutinizing outcomes, pushing people to perform, and calling them out when they miss the mark. But unfortunately, they don’t encourage, coach, or help employees learn from mistakes.
- Staff members are afraid to be truthful about errors or poor outcomes and worry about holding onto their jobs.
- People who embrace the draconian tactics get promoted instead of the smartest and most capable employees.
Ultimately, the toll that fear-based accountability takes is immense. Instead of heightening performance, it has the opposite effect, and it is a significant burden on staff. Negative repercussions on workers include:
- Low employee engagement
- Mental and physical health issues
The first wave of fallout from weaponized accountability is dwindling employee engagement, defined as the level of attachment people feel to their employer. Browbeaten workers lose their allegiance to the company and begin to see their jobs as merely a paycheck and not a means of personal fulfillment.
Employees with low engagement have a roving eye for greener-pasture job opportunities and have scant loyalty to their company. They develop a sour attitude that causes many to leave—and those who stay are highly unlikely to be good company ambassadors.
One consequence of fear-based accountability beyond low engagement is burnout, a condition more prevalent today than ever before. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies workplace burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. The organization cites three characteristics of the condition:
- Feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from or negativity or cynicism about one’s job
- Reduced personal efficacy
Employees experiencing burnout develop a bleak attitude toward their jobs. They report to work because they have to, not because they want to. As a result, they become less efficient, make more mistakes, and don’t improve. Worse, a few burned-out employees can have a ripple effect on an entire team.
Ironically, employers often miss this root cause of slumping performance and instruct managers to bear down harder.
Mental & Physical Health Issues
Poor management techniques can also lead to the depleted mental health of employees. For example, increased anxiety and depression among staff members are some of the first indicators of fear-based accountability.
These disorders can be debilitating to workers and extremely costly for employers. According to the WHO, depression and anxiety cost up to $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.
And weakened mental health frequently leads to other physical ailments. As author and Pepperdine professor Mark Allen noted in the Graziadio Business Review, workplace stress annually leads to $190 billion extra healthcare costs and contributes to 120,000 deaths.
What Happens When There’s No Accountability
The absence of accountability is just as detrimental to an organization as using it to instill fear. But while imposing shame and guilt is done purposefully, a lack of accountability is often unintentional.
Ineffective management is often behind fuzzy workplace accountability. Indicators include:
- Unclear direction
Employees unsure of what’s expected of them don’t have a way to apply accountability. Their managers may use words like “soon” or “when you get a chance” when assigning tasks, leaving their staff to interpret what they mean. Without clear direction, people can’t follow through effectively.
- Poor strategy
Managers who don’t have cohesive or strategic plans have difficulty assigning specific deliverables. Then, when they finally figure out what’s needed for success, there’s limited time for anyone to execute tasks efficiently.
- Unrealistic goals
Overly optimistic leaders sometimes think too big and unwittingly ask employees to meet unattainable goals. Well-intentioned workers usually respond by simply doing their best, and their bosses applaud their effort even though they aren’t delivering results.
- A desire to maintain a friendly atmosphere
Sometimes managers forgo holding people accountable to keep everyone happy. They don’t want to push their staff too hard and induce stress in the workplace. This approach may seem friendly, but it often reduces productivity and disincentivizes employees.
Leaders who fail or choose not to impose accountability standards and systems leave their employees to set their own standards and struggle to perform effectively. As a result, everyone’s output is uneven, morale slumps, and
The symptoms of a workplace lacking accountability include:
- Weak collaboration
People receiving unclear direction don’t know what’s expected of them, much less their teammates. Without specific targets, it’s difficult for employees to do their own jobs effectively and impossible for them to approach unstated collective goals.
Accountability functions like a GPS or map, helping employees decide how and when to arrive at specific goals. Leaders who don’t activate workplace accountability deprive their staff of a way to chart their course. As a result, employees are slow to make critical decisions and progress.
- Ineffective communication
When people aren’t compelled to deliver results, it doesn’t occur to them to share information that furthers team goals. They also don’t ask questions to straighten up misalignments or improve processes.
A system of accountability inspires employees to achieve at a high level. Without it, human nature often defaults to putting things off until absolutely necessary. Even if procrastinators accomplish their tasks in the nick of time, they rarely produce outstanding work.
In a zero-accountability environment, high performers who take their responsibilities seriously are overshadowed by coworkers who continuously let things slide. Ultimately, the negative work atmosphere will tank morale and dissolve employee engagement. Ironically, leaders who enforce no accountability suffer the same consequences of imposing a fear-driven workplace.
The absence of accountability goes beyond affecting the workforce. It eventually trickles down to the customer experience. Customers rarely get the service they require when employees don’t own outcomes.
In the big picture, a lack of workplace accountability limits a leader’s ability to execute critical plans and initiatives, curtails organizational progress, and negatively affects the bottom line.
How to Build an Accountability-Based Culture
Workplace accountability is reinforced in the formal and informal methods that leaders frame, assess, and provide feedback for their employees’ contributions. These can include everything from annual performance reviews to regular one-on-one check-ins between managers and direct reports.
To ensure that employees view accountability positively, managers need to make them feel like their work is honored while simultaneously encouraging them to improve. But leaders can’t create an environment of supportive accountability by merely tweaking old methods.
Instead, they must make constructive accountability the anchor of their organization’s culture to build trust and create buy-in for the concept. A healthy, accountability-based culture dignifies people’s work and inspires them to improve without making them feel demeaned.
It’s All About the Behaviors
A company’s culture is a composite of multiple behaviors that dictate how the business functions. To develop a culture most conducive for organizational and individual success, leaders must first identify the behaviors that they want their employees to embody.
As David Friedman points out in Culture by Design,
“Business leaders don’t acquire outstanding cultures for their companies by chance. They intentionally develop the culture they want rather than living with one that emerges by default.”
To achieve this goal, an organization’s leader must first define and model the preferred behaviors. This process creates a “common language” to describe specific actions and attitudes that generate optimal results. The list of behaviors should specify how people should approach their work, collaborate with teammates, and interact with the public.
These defined behaviors then become the gold standards for all staff members and the basis of a culture of positive accountability.
Behaviors in an Accountability-Based Culture
Multiple areas of conduct blend to form a vibrant culture, but the following behaviors are essential to maintaining accountability
Workplace accountability relies on leaders being clear about what they expect from their staff. But it’s a two-way street—it’s just as important for employees to make sure they’re on the same wavelength with everyone involved. They should ask clarifying questions when they aren’t sure about any aspect of an assignment, goal, process, or collaboration.
And leaders must create an atmosphere of trust to make people feel comfortable speaking up and taking the necessary time to get things straight. Accountability thrives in a safe work environment.
Many managers make the mistake of holding people accountable for making an effort instead of delivering results. Ensuring a successful outcome versus trying hard to achieve one requires an entirely different mindset. To deliver results, people envision what it will take to achieve the goal instead of just working on it.
This change of focus doesn’t mean that working hard to accomplish things isn’t important. But accountability makes people retool their perspective about approaching each project, track their progress, follow up on every detail, and concentrate on the endgame.
Accountability isn’t tied to merely completing tasks; it’s rooted in people’s ability to continuously generate the best outcomes. People who take ownership of their work products constantly evaluate everything and look for ways to improve.
A culture of accountability should encourage employees to reject complacency and instead strive to get better, faster, and more efficient every time they execute a task. The environment also should encourage people to seek opportunities to gain more knowledge and broaden their expertise.
Accountability means owning the responsibility to carry out a promise. But sometimes, unforeseen circumstances prevent people from making good on an obligation as planned. In such situations, employees often are tempted to resort to excuses or blame.
But people who hold themselves accountable for results have a relentless solution focus. They honor commitments—and when one gets derailed, they immediately create a win/win updated deliverable.
Finding a Way
Too often, employees become experts in explaining why they can’t do something instead of looking for ways to make it happen. But people who take ownership of their responsibilities are resourceful and take the initiative to look for new avenues to achieve objectives.
To cultivate workplace accountability, leaders must create an atmosphere where people can be creative problem-solvers. It should be one in which employees are comfortable and encouraged to take intelligent risks and go the extra mile to hit target goals successfully.
Paying Attention to the Details
Being accountable requires people to keep the ultimate goal top of mind. But it also necessitates a commitment to getting things right, not just getting them done. The habit of letting little things slide can undermine someone’s ability to nail effective outcomes. Missing just one detail can jeopardize achieving success.
Employees who take ownership of their work don’t take shortcuts, double-check everything, and stay organized for maximum efficiency.
Making Quality Personal
“Quality” is among many companies’ core values. But a corporate stance on the concept won’t inspire people to hold themselves accountable for it. Even employees who possess personal quality standards don’t always infuse them in their daily work obligations. This disconnect often happens because they don’t perceive the downstream impact of their job or how their output helps the company succeed.
To inspire employees to take quality personally at work, leaders must help them understand their value to the organization. In a culture based on positive accountability, leaders are careful to let each employee know how their contributions influence organizational goals. And staff members take ownership and pride in their work because they understand that they play a meaningful role.
Having a Bias for Action
Beyond providing clarity about their roles and target goals, an accountability-based culture will instill a bias for action in employees. It provides a supportive framework for people to make timely decisions to keep things moving forward. Consequently, people feel confident to act decisively, and they’re energized to work with a sense of urgency to get things done.
This kind of power is absent in companies with negative accountability where people are fearful of making a wrong move. Procrastination and analysis by paralysis are rampant in workplaces like this. But a healthy culture gives people the leeway to forge ahead, and change direction as needed.
Acting with Integrity
Much of an accountability-based culture boils down to integrity and character. It inspires people to step forward and own their work, even in challenging circumstances. And honesty is at the core of this behavior. Employees hold themselves accountable for achievement even when no one else is observing.
Additionally, they take responsibility for mistakes instead of covering them up or pinning them on someone else. Then they concentrate on learning from errors and devising strategies to prevent them from reoccurring.
Methods to Reinforce Accountability
In Culture by Design, David Friedman explains his eight-step process to build a high-performing culture. The first seven steps outline how to define and reinforce the behaviors that will make the organization and its staff thrive. Accountability is the eighth step and the capstone of this framework because it’s integral to achieving success.
After a culture initiative is underway, he recommends two tangible ways to demonstrate and encourage accountability:
- Performance Reviews
Once leadership introduces and teaches the preferred behaviors, surveys are an effective way to measure how well staff members live up to these standards. It’s useful to ask several groups for honest feedback: customers, vendors and other stakeholders, and employees.
Responses from the different groups provide a vivid portrait of how people perceive a staff’s performance. In addition, survey data analysis allows leaders to understand areas that need work and where employees stand out.
This information can help organizations fine-tune coaching efforts and assist team members in becoming more accountable for their behavior.
Friedman notes that the surveys serve another purpose, too:
“They send a clear message to our own team as well as the outside world that we’re very serious about our culture. Serious enough to hold ourselves accountable for what we say is important to us.”
Many employees dread performance reviews because of prior negative experiences. Surprisingly, Friedman says, only about 25 percent of leaders include elements of their culture in their review process. That’s a missed opportunity. But if an accountability-based culture is the platform for these evaluations, the process becomes a positive and invigorating interaction.
After leaders clearly communicate optimal behaviors to the team, managers can focus on the most relevant ones for each position. Next, both the employee and the manager should use them as metrics to do the assessment and then compare results as a basis for discussion.
Friedman also recommends having employees identify one or two behaviors they want to work on in the next quarter. Managers should then ask the employee how they plan to achieve those goals and what support is needed.
Typically performance reviews are annual events. But more frequent one-on-one check-ins are also valuable ways to sustain a high level of positive accountability.
These more informal sessions generate several advantageous consequences:
Obligatory performance check-ins where employees provide rote updates don’t help them understand the value of accountability. But when managers guide meaningful one-on-ones with constructive conversations, they can help employees develop a favorable outlook about improvement.
More Productive Outcomes
Regular meetings make it much easier for managers to provide valuable feedback. Instead of engaging in a retrospective overview of projects and numbers, they can quickly delve into daily outcomes rooted in company culture behaviors.
Importantly, routine conversations help establish stronger working relationships between managers and direct reports. As a result, employees engage in these sessions more willingly and see their bosses as collaborators instead of judges.
Lead by Example
Harry Truman famously displayed a plaque on his desk throughout his presidency that proclaimed, “The buck stops here.” It was his constant reminder that “passing the buck” is something a true leader never does.
Part of leadership is setting responsibilities for staff and holding them accountable for achieving goals. But that construct alone can lead to blame-filled environments that shrivel morale. To be effective, leaders must also hold themselves accountable for their ability to guide others and the organization’s overall success.
When they walk the talk, their team members will follow their example. Employees will also mimic a boss that shrinks from accountability. A leader who pushes deadlines and doesn’t own up to mistakes will have a team full of people who do the same.
As with everything else within an organization, the leader must be the standard-bearer for accountability to stick.
Anchor Your Culture with Accountability
The best way to make accountability second nature to employees is through continuous practice of their company’s preferred behaviors. After the standards are introduced, leaders should systematically reinforce them in multiple ways to be successful.
David Friedman created CultureWise to operationalize this process. Based on the framework outlined in Culture by Design, the innovative program offers a unique set of tools and curriculum to help staff members understand, internalize, and hold themselves accountable for behaviors that reflect a high-performance culture.