Workplace Accountability: Definition, Barriers, Examples and Main Benefits

No matter the type or size of an organization, from small family-owned businesses to multinational corporations, they all have the same scope: to meet their goals while maintaining a happy workforce. But you don't get to be on top of the mountain without climbing it. The same for your company: you will not reach your goals without effort.

There are different ways to get you up there. They all include self-accountability. Make no mistake: being accountable in the workplace is a paramount quality linked with trust, reliability, and responsibility, even if there is little talk about accountability.  

Understanding accountability in the workplace is one of the most vital characteristics of effective teams. On the other hand, a lack of accountability can keep teams and individuals from reaching their full potential.

Have you ever attended a meeting that has been delayed because another employee arrived late? People may find excuses, saying they were in a traffic jam or another meeting went too long. No one says they didn’t leave their house on time or lost track of their calendar.  

They don’t hold themselves accountable. 

When people are not accountable, one person's unprofessionalism becomes the team’s unprofessionalism. One snowball becomes an avalanche.

When you tolerate missed deadlines, being late, and incomplete work on a regular basis, they become the norm. Teammates learn that the correct deadline is a week from the published one, consistently being late for a meeting is tolerable, and suboptimal work is acceptable. Your team and your workplace culture suffer.

TABLE OF CONTENT

  1. What is accountability in the workplace?
  2. Accountability vs. responsibility in the workplace
  3. Main benefits of accountability
  4. Barriers to accountability
  5. Accountability examples for leaders
  6. Make accountability your team's secret ingredient


1.    What is accountability in the workplace?

Many people confuse responsibility with blame. They think of accountability in terms of managers trying to "catch" them doing something wrong, snitching on their colleagues, or working in an environment with a set of rules administered with a punitive approach. This negative approach could not be more wrong. 

Accountability in the workplace means that each employee is responsible for their actions, behaviors, and performance. It is unrealistic to expect 100% efficiency from your employees all the time (unless you are managing a team of robots).

By fostering a culture of accountability, instead of playing the “blame game” when something goes wrong, your employees step up and take responsibility for results. Accountable employees take full ownership of their actions and work to find solutions. As a result, employee morale and commitment to work increase, and the organization thrive. 

In contrast, when employees are not held accountable, they exonerate themselves instead of solving problems.

“Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to the result.” -Bob Proctor.


2.    Accountability vs. responsibility in the workplace

While they are often considered synonymous, responsibility and accountability have few distinct characteristics that separate them in the workplace. 

The main difference is that accountability emphasizes the ownership of actions and decisions regarding a project, while responsibility refers to the duty assigned to employees by their manager or someone in a higher authority.

You must understand the differences between responsibility and accountability to assess who fits where in the organization structure and/or when you assign tasks.  

Accountability generally refers to the aftermath of an event or project and covers the consequences of someone's actions. 

Accountability is about the ownership of consequences and often belongs to a single manager or team leader, who is held responsible for the results of the work of their teams. 

As a manager, you should share responsibility with your teammates. Most tasks require a wide variety of skills and competencies. A teamwork effort ensures that things are done efficiently and to a high standard. When carrying out a project, various people have particular duties to complete. Each team member is responsible for their assigned tasks. 

Accountability is given to one person, who is then held responsible for the outcomes and any potential negative effects of failing to achieve the desired objective. On the other hand, you cannot assign responsibility to an employee. Each team member must take responsibility on their own.

While responsibility is task-focused, accountability is how you respond and take ownership of the results. Even during challenging times, true leaders hold themselves accountable for the outcomes.

Accountability goes to someone with a higher power. On the other hand, you cannot assign responsibility to your employees. Each individual must assume personal accountability.


3.    Main benefits of accountability in the workplace

Accountability is a crucial part of employee performance in the workplace. Individuals held accountable for their actions may be more likely to perform their tasks well and efficiently.

A workplace that fosters a culture of accountability boosts morale and improves communication. Employees accountable for their actions and work will most likely make their work excellent. 

Other benefits of individual workplace accountability include:

A. Building trust

Establishing a culture of trust among employees relies on accountability to own mistakes. As a leader seeking to build trust within your teams, you must prioritize open communication and honest feedback.  

When you hold all employees accountable for their actions and behavior, you foster a trustworthy working atmosphere where people count on each other, seek advice, and ask for help. 

As a manager, you are part of a team. Owning your mistakes is critical to establishing accountability and trust among your team members. 

We live in a constantly changing work environment, yet one thing remains constant: accountability is at the top. Don't swipe your failure under the rug. Lead by example!

B. Improving employees’ performance

Fostering a culture of accountability eliminates confusion among your staff and saves time, allowing individuals to meet the company’s goals.

According to Graeme Donnelly, CEO of 1st Formations: “Accountability is of utmost importance in a high-performance team. Clear expectations for everyone on the team coupled with an understanding of accountability for their performance are the key ingredients to improving confidence, morale, and production within the team."

When employees are underperforming or fail to meet deadlines, hold them accountable, guide them on the company vision and personal expectations, and help them improve. This mentality boosts performance at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

C. Strengthening company culture

A culture of accountability doesn’t just happen; it takes a steady effort to build your company culture, and accountability is one of the foundational pillars. Employees who know you will hold them accountable are serious about quality, consistency, and maintaining a high-level performance. 

When a company culture relies on honest communication and accountability, people acknowledge mistakes, assess what is working and what needs to be improved, learn, and move forward.

Here is another insight provided by John Wright, Director and VP of Marketing at MCGB Properties Ltd., quoted by Forbes, “Without accountability execution suffers; and a lack of accountability can have a snowball effect throughout the team. Accountability becomes embedded into corporate culture by making it everyone’s responsibility, establishing meaningful goals and team buy-in, building trust through support and encouragement, empowering everyone on the team and celebrating successes together.


4.      Common barriers to accountability in the workplace

You now understand that a culture of trust, involvement, and exceptional performance is produced by accountability at work.

Look no further if you believe that your team members are not vested in the business's success. Teams will need to get beyond a few typical obstacles to accountability.

A. Ambiguous expectations

Gallup research revealed that just approximately half of workers are aware of their job's expectations.

That makes you wonder: how can they hold themselves accountable if they don’t know what you expect of them?

When the tasks are unclear, so is the work of your employees, and they cannot be held accountable for the gray, undefined areas. Check if roles and responsibilities are clear, documented, and communicated. Ensure that individual and collective goals are clear and everybody works towards the same achievements. Start with an effective onboarding process.

B. Fear of failure

Failures kill carriers, and mistakes are expensive. But they are also impossible to avoid in the workplace. 

Employees are afraid of accountability, especially in organizations with harsh consequences or punitive measures for those who make errors. Your employees will fear getting involved in a new project. They fear making poor decisions or sending the wrong message. And because people are afraid of being held accountable for mistakes, they avoid taking responsibility for their work. They are far less willing to offer new ideas, accept provocative challenges, and be creative and innovative.

C. Lack of engagement

Nowadays, employees need more than a good paycheck at the end of the month. They want respect, purpose, and meaning from their work. These drive employee engagement. Foster a culture of accountability by trusting the members of your team. Without accountability, employee engagement is going to suffer exponentially over time.

In an environment that lacks accountability, one wrong tendency will soon be followed by others. Constant delays become the new deadlines, and bad behaviors are mundane among your team. The level of team engagement is directly related to accountability in the workplace. The engagement of the whole team might be negatively impacted by even one person who is permitted to break the rules.

When a colleague doesn't follow through on pledges and isn't held accountable, the other team members become frustrated and disengaged. Weak team morale, inconsistent priorities across the team, poor employee engagement, missed team and individual goals, low levels of trust, and high turnover are all consequences of a lack of accountability in the workplace.


5. Accountability examples for leaders

Accountability occurs when employees, regardless of their job or time spent within your team, deliver on their commitments, proving they are reliable and trustworthy.

As a manager, you further demonstrate accountability by owning the outcomes of their actions and decisions. 

According to Phil Geldart, author of the book In Your Hands: The Behaviors of a World Class Leader, managers at all levels can demonstrate accountability through their behavior and the quality of the decision-making process. True leaders set the performance standard for others to follow.

Let the quality of your work and decisions be the gold standard against which the performance of others comes to be measured.” Phil Geldart

So, what is “gold standard” accountability? 

When managers own their teams’ results with wisdom and honesty, they show the best combination of behavior and judgment, performance excellence, and key skills. This “savoir-faire” attitude is “gold standard” accountability. Here are six examples to help you build “gold standard” accountability:

Establish clear goals

It is impossible to come close to reaching “gold standard” accountability when you don’t know what you need to be accountable for. Establishing clear and transparent targets and the path to those goals is crucial to becoming an accountable leader. Measuring responsibility is significantly simpler when individuals and teams have clearly defined and meaningful professional goals.

Use the classic SMART goal method to see if your team’s goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. 

Lead by example

As a manager, you must practice what you preach. When you demonstrate self-accountability for both the failures and the successes, you set the tone for your team’s performance and excellence. Accountability helps employees enframe their work in an honest context. 

Being an effective leader requires acting with integrity since it sets a good example for your team and motivates others to do the same.

Build trust

Accountable leadership fosters trust and respect. When managers show “gold standard” accountability, employees know that the actions are in their best interests. People naturally develop respect and trust in managers who set examples of good behavior. 

People will follow you if you keep your promises. Becoming a leader for your workforce is the most effective approach to putting your business on the right path.

Provide and ask for constructive feedback

You can improve your leadership accountability by providing and asking for feedback as often as possible. Don’t wait for the annual performance review. It needs to be a continuous process that allows employees to know how they perform, learn, and grow. A leader that provides constructive feedback empowers the whole team, increases the quality of work, and allows everyone to be accountable.

Asking for employee feedback can help you adjust your goals and remain accountable for your duties. 

Ensure smooth communication

Communication is vital to leadership accountability. Accountable leaders are transparent, own their team’s results, and encourage open communication to stay in the loop, anticipate, and remove roadblocks to high performance. 

As a manager, you must improve the methods of communication to foster a culture of accountability in your team. Open communication can help you remain accountable and set the pace among team members.

Great, accountable leaders close the loop between strategy, people, and results.

Focus on the future

A manager with “gold standard” accountability takes a challenging mission and vision to make it a reality. An accountable leader knows the company’s aim, how to get there, the potential obstacles, and ways to avoid them. They take small, manageable steps in chronological order. They assign milestones with clear deliverables and deadlines and hold themselves and the team accountable. 

Accountability not only means taking responsibility for a past action but also planning responsibly for future actions.


6. Make accountability your team’s secret ingredient

We have proved that, in most cases, having an accountable team means having a high-performing team. Yet, several roadblocks stand in your way regarding having your employees accept personal responsibility for what happens at work.

As the team leader, it is your job to make this a core part of your team’s culture. It will take time, patience, and maybe even some trial and error during the transformation process.

Shift your team’s dynamics by following such accountability examples:

  • Owning your mistakes
  • Involving employees in the goal-setting process
  • Making expectations clear
  • Ensuring your team has the necessary resources
  • Providing candid feedback.

These are the first steps well on your path to a team that is accountable—and more collaborative, engaged, and productive.

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