Building a Culture of Accountability

Accountability is a key component of any organization’s success. But it’s all too easy to brush it off as one of those corporate buzzwords that sounds good but won’t really help get you anywhere. Plus, like engagement, accountability can seem like a nebulous concept that you know you need to implement but just aren’t sure exactly what it is—let alone how to go about incorporating it into your corporate culture.

To begin building a culture of accountability, you must have a firm grasp of what accountability is. It is fairly common for people to equate accountability with responsibility. And, while those two concepts are related—cousins, let’s say—they’re not the same:

  • Responsibility refers to a person’s actions as they relate to the completion of a task
  • Accountability relates more to the results of a given task and carries with it a sense of ownership over those results

Put concisely: Responsibility is task-oriented, while accountability is results-oriented. A person can certainly be both responsible for the completion of a task and accountable for the results, but one can also be responsible but not accountable and vice versa. Consider this (simplified) example:

Executive Assistant Ryan is responsible for compiling results for his organization’s monthly sales reports for VP of Sales Emily. While Ryan must complete the task, he is certainly not accountable for the results. How could he be? Instead, VP of Sales Emily is accountable for the results which detail how well—or poorly—her sales team is performing. Now, if Emily had no assistant and completed her own monthly sales reports, she would be both responsible for the task and accountable for the results.

Now that we’ve teased out the difference between responsibility and accountability, let’s look at why accountability is so important, and why you should work toward building a culture of accountability at every level of your organization.

The Benefits of a Culture of Accountability

When employees take ownership of not just completing their tasks but the results of their tasks—accountability—they have more “skin in the game.” They are more invested in the outcome of the tasks which usually means improved performance. A small sample of the benefits of a culture of accountability include:

  • Fewer tasks will slip through the cracks. In a culture of accountability, everyone knows their role, and you can avoid those all-too-common situations where everyone assumed “someone else was doing it.”
  • Employees begin to think more creatively, for improved problem-solving and innovation
  • Reducing conflict; when employees are personally accountable, they are far more likely to take ownership of any hiccups or mistakes, using them as learning opportunities rather than shifting blame elsewhere
  • Improved performance that results from a culture of accountability will help employees grow their skills and, in turn, their confidence as they master new skills and ways of thinking, enabling a growth mindset

How to Build a Culture of Accountability

First and foremost, building a culture of accountability requires consistency, patience and possibly a shift in thinking from an organization’s leadership. This isn’t something that happens overnight or even in a matter of months. If you want to reap the benefits of a culture of accountability, a long-term approach is essential. A few other tips:

  1. Ensure that each employee understands how their work feeds into the success of the organization. Tie an employees’ job tasks as directly as possible to the organization’s strategic imperatives. Employees are more likely to adopt personal accountability if they can envision how their actions help determine the organizations overall success.
  2. Engage employees in goal setting. When you work with employees in setting performance goals—as opposed to simply assigning them—you are more likely to inspire personal accountability. But don’t stop there! Learning and development goals are just as important. When you provide learning and development opportunities at the employee’s request, they assume accountability for taking advantage of those opportunities. It’s a win-win for the employee and the organization.
  3. Set clear expectations. Before kicking off a project or initiative, make sure that everyone knows who is responsible and accountable for every task. Many organizations use a “RACI” for this. A RACI is a chart that lays out each task involved in a project and who is responsible (doing the work), accountable (responsible for results), consulted (available for guidance) and informed (kept abreast of updates). Putting these roles in writing holds everyone personally accountable for their individual role.
  4. Foster a sense of safety and stability. A common reason employees are reluctant to take on greater accountably is fear—fear of failure, of disappointing their manager or team or more concrete fears (like losing their job). This can lead to finger-pointing or even hiding mistakes. To inspire accountability, treat failure with grace. Even falling short of a goal offers some improvement and learning opportunities.
  5. Ensure employees have the resources they need to achieve their goals. No one wants to be held accountable if they feel like they’ve been set up to fail (e.g., with an unrealistic timeline). Whether it’s software, guidance or time, employees that have the resources to perform their best will be more likely to accept accountability for the results.
  6. Improve your feedback process. Creating a culture of accountability necessitates candid, frequent employee feedback. Communicate openly about challenges, successes, concerns and suggestions. Don’t forget that feedback is a two-way street. In addition to giving feedback, be upfront about both asking employees for their feedback and acknowledging your own wins or roadblocks.

Personal accountability must be developed throughout all levels of an organization to truly build a culture of accountability that lasts. Working to increase accountability will take time and effort—and likely some trial and error along the way. But building accountability into your corporate culture will improve employee engagement and performance and, ultimately, the success of your organization.