Accountability is at the heart of all high-performing teams and successful organizations. Employees at all levels take full ownership and responsibility for their actions, decisions and performance—and for the achievement of business outcomes—without excuses. Healthy cultures that prioritize accountability see better results in productivity, collaboration and engagement, high morale and a greater capacity to thrive.
If that doesn't sound like your organization, then as a leader, you have to find out why. It's time to determine how teams can align their tasks with the organization's big picture.
Lack of accountability has long been one of the key problems and complaints in organizational cultures, regardless of size. Data shows that more than 80% of managers struggle with holding others accountable, and 91% of employees say it’s one of their company’s top leadership development needs.
It can't be overstated that this skill starts at the top and requires consistent strategic reinforcement. So why is it so difficult for leaders to actually hold employees accountable?
Your Definition Of Accountability May Be Wrong
Oftentimes, leaders make the mistake of confusing accountability with responsibility. As an advisor who guides leaders in creating more inclusive cultures, when I hear a client say “They must be held accountable,” the context is often someone did something wrong and has to somehow pay a price. That’s where the confusion comes in.
Responsibility is taking ownership of one’s activities, like creating a checklist or drafting a job description. Accountability, however, is taking ownership of results, good or bad. It includes finding solutions to problems to produce better results now and in the future. Do you see the differenceConsider a typical workplace issue where something—a job, task, action, etc.—needs to be done, but no one accepts the responsibility of actually taking care of it. So when the job doesn’t get done, who do you hold accountable? This confusion can create a toxic situation.
Tips For True Accountability
As a leader, if you want to create a culture of accountability, you must first develop your ability to take personal accountability. I suggest taking these three steps.
- Don't blame. No one in your team will want to be held accountable for outcomes if they think they'll be blamed and punished for any discovered mistakes.
- Look in the mirror. Acknowledge your part in the situation. If you're involved with the system in which a problem was discovered, you likely contributed to it.
- Engineer the solution. Don't think the problem is your people. Focus on fixing the processes that caused the true issue.
Then, I often recommend that leaders read Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success. In it, author Courtney Lynch says, “Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.” I like this quote because it’s a great reminder to avoid looking for someone or something to blame. Here are some ways you can inspire accountability within your team.
- Step back. It can be easy to continually ask “What’s the status of this?” during a project. But this is more distracting than helpful. Instead, set expectations at the beginning for the cadence of communication, including milestone check-ins. Then, trust your team to get things done and take ownership of the outcome.
- Emphasize tasks, not deadlines. Focusing on deadlines often increases anxiety rather than motivating employees. If there's something of importance that needs to be done, find a way to support team members so they can prioritize it. For example, you may delegate certain tasks so employees aren't overwhelmed by less-urgent tasks. You can also offer guidance around what should be prioritized and why.
- Discuss the big picture positively. Sometimes, it's easier to focus on the consequences of a mistake. But again, that won't encourage team members to take accountability. Instead, explain to them why this project/work matters and how it contributes to the organization's bigger picture.
If you want your team to perform well, you must consistently model and encourage accountability. That means admitting mistakes, asking for feedback and integrating lessons learned into your standard operating processes. So ask yourself: "Am I holding my team accountable?" If not, isn’t it time you started?
This article was originally written for the Forbes Human Resources Council, and published on the Forbes website in September 2023. You can see Kelly Lockwood Primus' other Forbes articles on her author page.