Accountability: The Ultimate Employee Commitment
9 Minute Read
“Accountability is not only what we do, but also what we do not do for which we are accountable.”
Imagine this. You just landed your dream job. You’re doing what you love in a company that aligns with your own beliefs and purpose.
There’s a lot to do and because the organization is flexible and adaptive you immediately start tackling your projects and planning ways to reach the goals you’ve been assigned.
You feel like you have enough autonomy to come up with different strategies and solutions.
However, you don’t feel like your role was clearly defined. And your manager occasionally gives you contradictory information about your duties.
Do you feel like you can make decisions and own your projects, processes, and challenges?
How do you respond to what you do and do not do? This is where accountability comes in.
According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, accountability is associated with improved competency and commitment to work, increased employee morale and work satisfaction.
“Accountability is having a sense of ownership for the task and the willingness to face the consequences that come with success or failure.”
- Henry Browning
Accountability is an internal sense of ownership over one’s task. It’s about being able to respond to the consequences of one’s actions whether they’re positive or negative.
Let’s face it, taking credit for the successes is easy. Accountability concerns normally arise with failures, mistakes and missed targets.
“The employee who is accountable will make decisions and own the consequences of those decisions, regardless of whether the results turn out to be positive or negative.”
- Henry Browning
Organizations seek 3 levels of commitment from employees:
Engagement is about being completely involved, excited and eager to support the achievement of the organization's goals.
Engaged employees need to have an adequate level of challenge as well as autonomy to apply their strengths in the pursuit of positive outcomes and solutions to the issues that arise.
They also need to be aware of the ways in which their work contributes to a meaningful mission.
People who see their work as part of something bigger than themselves, that is aligned with their own values and meaningful endeavors are more engaged and committed to the organization.
When workers are able to perceive how their activities are related to the mission, vision, and goals of the organization, engagement ensues.
Empowered employees take charge of the task and trust themselves to make decisions.
Once there’s alignment between the employees' interests and the organization’s goals, they can exercise their decision-making ability. And leaders need to provide enough freedom so that opportunities for decision-making take place.
Even in a culture with freedom and high levels of empowerment, inevitably, some people will seek protection and guidance from a manager or supervisor.
The organization is left with the mission of developing their employees, so that they, increasingly take on more complex decisions and, ultimately assume full authority of their projects.
Leaders seeking to create a culture that fosters empowerment need to provide:
Confidence: showing respect for the employees’ skills and abilities
Communication: facilitating systematic and open communication systems
Clear boundaries: decision-making is facilitated when employees are clear about the limits of their autonomy
Support: instead of micromanaging which hinders empowerment, trust fosters it
Acknowledgment: for appropriate risk-taking and initiative
Responsibility vs Accountability
The distinction between responsibility and accountability is not always clear. Responsibility, often times, comes from a title or job description. It’s about holding a certain position and what it entails.
Responsibility is, generally, assigned by the boss, organization or by the position itself.
Accountability, on the other hand, is intrinsic. It’s a personal sense of ownership over the task and the willingness to respond to its outcome. It’s self-generated.
“In leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies, including administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain, and be answerable for resulting consequences.”
- Henry Browning
Responsibility is extrinsic, accountability is intrinsic, therefore, challenging for leaders to grasp. Even in a culture that promotes accountability, management has no way of ensuring accountability. It’s entirely up to individuals or teams to choose to own their activities or not.
In a culture that punishes mistakes and failures, accountability will naturally be constrained.
Fear is one the biggest obstacles to accountability. It drives people to hold back important information and resources.
Instead of approaching mistakes with a growth mindset, people are more likely to blame others and avoid responsibility in a work environment dominated by fear.
Fear is usually the result of feeling threatened by possible consequences of performance, like demotion or job loss. In certain conditions, it might be very real.
More often, though, small doubts quickly escalate into full-blown paranoia when there’s isn’t enough information and high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Gossiping, backstabbing, and other detrimental behaviors are likely to occur when topics are off-limits. Without appropriate channels and open communication, the focus will be diverted to nonproductive work and mistrust.
The role of authority is the focal point and low levels of trust are, often, an indicator of fear in the organization.
The other obstacle to accountability is a lack of clarity regarding the role and goal. It’s hard to be accountable if you don’t know what and to whom you’re accountable to.
Crafting a culture of accountability
Because accountability is intrinsic, it’s common that the literature around this topic focuses on the distinction between people who act with accountability and people who act as victims of their circumstances, unwilling to own the consequences of their actions.
However, the issue might revolve more around creating the right environment, with the structures and systems that foster a culture of accountability.
So, how do organizations establish accountability as a core practiced value?
Support entails that the system provides goal and role clarity, authority and power over the task and enough resources for implementation.
It’s about the extent to which the organization, your boss, manager, and teammates formally acknowledge the importance of the work and the people doing it.
Whether or not the strategy aligns with the mission and vision of the company.
It’s about higher management taking an active role in coaching and developing their workers’ thinking processes.
It’s being able to access the resources needed to execute. Hiring the right people and having the authority to eliminate or develop under performers.
At a cultural level, support is modeled by the leader in the set of values and attitudes practiced towards:
Respect for differences,
Tolerance for mistakes and
Belief in the ability of each worker to find appropriate solutions to each goal
Freedom is a prerequisite for accountability. Without it, there’s only room for responsibility. If the task is so structured and directed that there’s no place for any other input, then failure would be due to the process or the circumstances.
It’s only to the extent that the employee has influence over his processes that he will have something to be accountable for and a higher commitment to the project.
Accountability requires access to crucial information. Which can fall into 3 different categories:
Supplier or resource focused
It’s important that both formal and informal channels of information, grant workers with the flow of information they need to perform their work.
The quality of their decisions is directly tied to the sources of information they have access to.
For people to feel accountable, they need to believe they were granted enough information.
In most organizations, there will be some degree of limitation when it comes to resources.
However, to accomplish the tasks and goals of the company, a minimum level of resources needs to be available to workers. These resources are generally comprise of capital, personnel and time.
Even if there is a shortage of resources, people will display resourcefulness and feel like they can handle the challenges if they understand it’s justified and not arbitrary. “For example, across-the-board budget cuts are often difficult to handle, but to meet a specific market challenge or competitor threat, managers often rise to the occasion with innovative approaches.” (Browning, 2012)
High levels of uncertainty and ambiguity get in the way of accountability. Being specific about roles, team leadership, individual ownership is essential.
So role and goal clarity are about clearly understanding:
To whom you’re accountable?
What results are you responsible for?
In what areas should I defer or not to others?
Wrapping it up
According to a study conducted by AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association, 21% of business leaders believe the percentage of unaccountable employees ranges between 30% to 50%.
Accountability can drive benefits to small and large businesses by increasing engagement, empowerment and confidence.
A workforce of people willing to admit, learn and make amends for mistakes and failures is a valuable asset for any organization.
Creating a culture that encourages accountability is an on-going process of implementing systems that facilitate learning, communication, freedom, and support.
Leaders willing to invest in the refinement of these processes will reap the benefits of higher performance and a healthier organizational climate.
“Always know that you are being held accountable for your actions, by your friends, family, coworkers. Lead by example and build a team of successful people around you. By being the dependable person, success is naturally attracted to you.”
- Farshad Asl
Now, we'd love your input. What's the biggest challenge you face when it comes to accountability? What creative solutions did you come up with? Leave a comment below.
Browning, Henry (2012). Accountability: Taking Ownership Of Your Responsibility. Greensboro, N.C.: Center for Creative Leadership.
Tanner, W. (2016). "How To Create A Culture Of Accountability In The Workplace". Soapbox. Retrieved here.
The importance of Accountability. Boundless. Retrieved here.