What Is Accountability In The Workplace? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 25, 2021
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Accountability is an important concept to understand and practice for any working professional.

Whether you’re a team leader or employee, holding yourself and others accountable is a major cornerstone of effective workplace collaboration.

Doing so will generate respect and massively impact performance and results.

In this article, we’ll discuss what accountability is and how it relates to the workplace. You’ll also learn tips to help you create a culture of accountability in your team or company.

The Meaning of Accountability in the Workplace

At its core, accountability is a simple concept — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.

This is critical for effective workplace collaboration. The top-performing teams aren’t always the ones created from a dream team of skilled individuals, but rather ones with a culture of trust, cooperation, and responsibility.

Accountability is the foundation for all three of these aspects.

Accountable individuals demonstrate that they prioritize the success of the team over themselves. This invites other employees to behave similarly, ultimately resulting in a cohesive and effective team.

Most people think of accountability in terms of “catching” others when they fail or do something wrong.

Although this is what accountability means in many organizations, it doesn’t need to be.

Accountability in the workplace should be about setting and holding employees to a common expectation by clearly defining its values and goals.

Why Creating a Culture of Accountability Is Important

Accountability in the workplace is critical for fueling a successful company for several major reasons.

Here are a few:

  • Accountability is the first step to improvement. If nobody takes ownership of mistakes, then nobody feels the need to make improvements.

    Accountability isn’t about punishment; it’s about accepting the responsibility to strive for excellence and improve your work.

    Imagine what your project team or company could accomplish if each employee felt individually compelled to perform their best.

  • Positive side-effects. Successfully implementing a culture of accountability will generate several other positive side effects for your company, such as.

    1. Respect towards leadership. A culture of accountability requires you to step up and lead by example.

      By observing your integrity, employees will trust and respect you more in other matters as well.

    2. Employee empowerment. If employees feel that they work in a fair environment that provides the tools to succeed, then they’ll be much more confident in everything they do.

    3. Provides incentives for achieving excellence. The flip-side of employees accepting ownership over failures is that they can bask in the light of successes as well.

      Once it becomes well-known who’s responsible for completing each objective, they’ll all feel a greater drive to perform their best.

    4. Shines a light over hidden problems. If a single employee underperforms, then that’s probably an issue with their work ethic or ability.

      If all employees underperform, then that’s likely due to ineffective management.

      In implementing a culture of accountability, you’ll likely stumble across many poor practices that weren’t previously discovered. You can then target these as areas for improvement.

  • Competitive edge. A culture of accountability is difficult to achieve for most companies.

    According to a Partners in Leadership Workplace Accountability survey, 82% of participants stated that they had a “limited to no” ability to hold others accountable.

    91% of participants ranked accountability at the top of their company’s development needs.

    The takeaway is that if you can successfully implement a culture of accountability among your staff, your company will have a major advantage over most of the competition.

    If you develop a reputation for fairly applying accountability, then top talent will also be more likely to interview at your company.

Tips to Promote Accountability in the Workplace

Accountability is often a difficult characteristic to foster in a team or organization’s culture.

It’s not simply a task that you can delegate to employees and command them to perform. Accountability is associated with punishment and requires individuals to step outside their comfort zones and welcome risk.

However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Here are some key tips to help you create a culture of accountability in your workplace:

  • Accountability starts with you. You can’t expect your team members just spontaneously to start accepting accountability.

    Leadership defines the culture, and you need to set an example for the behaviors that you expect out of other members of your organization.

    Publicly take ownership of projects and other commitments. When inevitable failures or setbacks occur, step up, and accept accountability.

    Demonstrate to all employees that failure is just a chance for improvement. In addition to gaining their trust and respect, you’ll start to see them follow your lead and begin practicing accountability as well.

  • Create psychological safety. Most people immediately think of discipline and failure when they hear the word “accountability.”

    To foster accountability in the workplace, you must first reframe what the concept means in employees’ minds.

    When an individual steps up and accepts accountability for an error, do not be overly harsh in disciplining them.

    The focus should be on examining how the error occurred and developing a plan to prevent it from moving forward.

    Once your team members observe you consistently treating accountability as an opportunity for collaborative thinking and improvement, they’ll become much more likely to accept it.

  • Clearly define expectations. Other than the fear of punishment, the other psychological hurdle that discourages many employees from accepting accountability is a sense of unfairness.

    Many poor managers set vague expectations yet over-discipline their staff when their actions don’t match what they imagined in their minds.

    When creating objectives for employees, you can define clear expectations for your desired results by:

    1. Set specific timeframes. Be exact when setting deadlines, such as “March, 3rd at 4PM EST.”

    2. State exactly who is responsible for delivery. If you state a goal with no additional information, employees will assume that others are handling it.

      The general rule is one task, one owner.

      Communicate clearly to each individual their job duties and what’s expected out of them.

    3. Precisely describe what the completed project should look like. Be very specific with each metric that you expect the completed project to meet.

    4. Provide examples. Don’t just assume that individuals understand what you’re talking about. Provide examples and ask them to confirm that they know what’s expected of them.

  • Do not delegate accountability. Nobody is going to accept accountability or take ownership of something they knew was going to fail.

    Make sure to ask your staff if they have everything they need to succeed. If not, you need to provide whatever tools are missing if you ever want them to accept accountability.

    Don’t assign accountability to employees who raise concerns over a project’s approach or tell you they don’t have the skills to accomplish a particular task.

  • Set up performance reviews. Once an employee has committed to meeting an objective, it’s important to set up performance review sessions for a few reasons:

    1. It lets them know that they will be held accountable for their work.

    2. Provides an opportunity to give support and constructive criticism in case things start to go wrong.

    3. Offers an opportunity to praise employees and encourage them to keep up the good work if all is going well.

    Be sure not to schedule performance reviews too frequently or you’ll risk becoming a micromanager.

  • Accountability requires enforcement. Discipline shouldn’t be the focus of accountability, but it should still be present.

    We want to lessen the fear associated with accountability without swinging too far to the other side and making the concept meaningless.

    Enforcement is especially important if mistakes are committed due to neglect rather than failed attempts.

  • Be consistent in enforcing accountability. To implement a culture of accountability, your organization members need to believe that the rules apply consistently and fairly to all.

    Accountability should apply to one and all.

    Please don’t do a favor for your friend and ignore their accountability. If you let it slide with one person, you invite others to be selectively accountable as well.

    Communicate a clear policy for responding to failures and difficult team members and enforce it consistently.

    That includes making yourself answerable to the same disciplinary procedures if you fail.

Final Thoughts

Establishing a culture of accountability is critical for creating effective teams and outperforming the competition.

Accountability is all about individuals taking ownership over commitments and meeting objectives.

It encourages employees to identify and improve on the reasons for failures and incentivizes them to work their hardest and achieve excellence.

As a leader, it all begins with you. Model the behaviors that you want your co-workers to exhibit, and you’ll observe that they’ll begin to follow suit.

Once you’ve created a culture of accountability, reinforce it by remaining consistent and fair in how you enforce it.

The entire process will be challenging, but as long as you work at it and follow our tips, your organization’s upsides will be well worth it.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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