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How to create a culture of accountability in the workplace

June 24, 2022 - 17 min read


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What is accountability in the workplace?

The importance of accountability in the workplace

Examples of workplace accountability

7 steps to fostering accountability in the workplace

Accountability in the workplace can be hard to find, but it’s one of the most important characteristics of high-performing teams and employees. A lack of accountability, on the other hand, can keep companies and individuals from reaching their full potential. 

Have you ever been in a meeting when someone else arrives late? People say they hit traffic or that another meeting went too long. This is because no one wants to say they didn’t set their morning alarm, leave their house on time, or keep track of their calendar. They’re unable to take direct responsibility for their actions. They don’t hold themselves accountable.

If organizations want to meet their goals and keep employees engaged, they must create a culture of accountability in the workplace. The good news? With the right steps, you can foster a culture of responsibility that drives your business forward and makes employees happier. Let’s dive in.

 What is accountability in the workplace? 

Accountability in the workplace means that employees take responsibility for both their performance and business outcomes. Instead of playing the “blame game” when something goes wrong, they step up and take full ownership. They don’t waste time trying to look good to others — accountable employees work to find solutions. As a result, the organization thrives. 

In contrast, a lack of accountability in the workplace means employees aren’t on time for meetings. They don’t complete action items by their deadlines. When they miss an important revenue goal, they spend days or weeks searching for the cause. Instead of problem-solving, they make excuses. And since they never know who’s responsible, leaders end up firing or promoting employees who had nothing to do with the success or failure of certain projects.

The importance of accountability in the workplace 

If accountability isn’t part of your organization’s culture, you’ll struggle with employee performance and engagement. Plus, if employees can always escape criticism by making excuses, they won’t grow. They certainly won’t feel compelled to go above and beyond for their teams. 

Accountability in the workplace is important because businesses — and individuals — need to be outcome-focused. It’s so easy to waste time complaining rather than seeking solutions. However, that’s poison for a company that wants to grow. Whether it’s to make a certain amount of money by the end of the quarter or hire two new employees by the end of the month, you won’t be able to accomplish it without accountability. 

In addition, employees need clear expectations to thrive. Without those expectations, employee engagement will drop — and if employees aren’t engaged, research shows they’ll probably quit. That’s bad news because according to Gallup research, only 34% of employees report being actively engaged at work. A lack of accountability is sure to make that problem worse. 

If you want to boost engagement, performance, and job satisfaction, you must prioritize employee accountability. And no, we don’t mean you should just choose a person to blame when things go haywire. Instead, create a culture of accountability that rewards employees for taking personal responsibility. If you do that, you’ll experience the endless benefits of accountability in the workplace.


Examples of workplace accountability

So what is accountability in the workplace, really? Accountability is best seen in the way your team members show up to work. Here are some examples of what accountability at work looks like:  

  • Punctuality: Employees are always on time for team meetings and never make excuses for late deliverables.
  • Honesty: Employees tell the truth about what they can accomplish and when, because they know that they’re responsible for the results. 
  • Being proactive: Instead of waiting for someone else to take ownership, accountable employees are excited to solve problems and seek solutions.  
  • Acting with integrity: Employees do what they say they will, when they say they will.
  • Emotional intelligence: Employees take responsibility for their feelings instead of blaming others for their emotions. 
  • Vulnerability: Employees admit their errors instead of rushing to cover up mistakes. They ask for help when they need it, because they feel responsible their own success.
  • Communication: Employees are brave enough to have difficult conversations, because they know they’re responsible for maintaining and developing their relationships. 

When there’s accountability in the workplace, operations will run smoothly. Projects will get completed with excellence and on time. There won’t be hours wasted on silly conflicts between coworkers. There won’t be explosions of anger from a manager who blames everyone else for their problems. Accountability creates a positive, safe, welcoming work culture that helps everyone thrive.

7 steps to fostering accountability in the workplace

Company culture doesn’t form overnight. It’s collaborative process that requires everyone to, you guessed it, take responsibility. And while you can’t force your employees to become accountable, you can foster a culture that encourages responsibility. Over time, everyone in the organization will see and appreciate the benefits of accountability in the workplace.

Here’s your 7 step roadmap to fostering a company culture that values accountability. 

1. Make accountability one of your company’s core values 

Your company’s core values show what you care about and how you expect your employees to act at work. If you’re trying to create a culture of accountability, this is a great place to start. Formalizing accountability as something that your organization values is the best way to show employees that you’re serious about it. 

If you write down accountability as a core value, it’s also easier to hold your employees to it. Your expectations for their behavior will be clear from their first day on the job. For example, when it comes time to conduct a performance review with a direct report, you can discuss if they’re living out the company’s core values. If they’re not acting accountable, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to encourage change.


2. Lead by example, whether you’re a manager or an executive 

Accountability starts at the top of the organization. If your CEO isn’t accountable, your employees won’t be, either. Every individual in a position of leadership should demonstrate personal accountability. That means taking ownership when a problem arises, rather than blaming your team members. This isn’t always easy — it can be hard to speak up and take responsibility. 

If your leaders (or you) are struggling with accountability, executive coaching can help. Fred Kofman, Vice President of Leadership & Organizational Development at LinkedIn, acknowledges that making yourself the main character in your story does not come naturally. No one can summon this without some help. “You need someone who is not part of the problem to guide you towards this,” he says. A coach could be that person for you. 

3. Assign clear ownership to projects and initiatives 

Unfortunately, if you leave employees to their own devices, accountability won’t come naturally. One of the simplest ways to create a culture of accountability is to make it a foundational part of project management. Whenever a new campaign or initiative is beginning, it’s best to assign a clear owner. Otherwise, projects can go on for months, being passed from person to person, with no one taking responsibility. 

Even if one person isn’t doing every individual task, there should be one person who is responsible for the outcome. They can keep tabs on progress, report on updates at team meetings, and push things all the way to completion. The result? Employee engagement will increase because ownership gives employees a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose in their work.  

4. Let accountability trickle down 

Not everyone is equipped to be a project manager or leader. However, every employee should have a sense of accountability and responsibility within their roles. To achieve this, employees need to have their own individual goals and performance metrics. 

For example, say one of your direct reports is a marketing coordinator. They’re probably not ready to lead a whole campaign, but they can be responsible for certain tasks related to the bigger project. Help them set goals like, “write four emails with a 20% open rate.” 

This goal contributes to the overall campaign, but they can have total ownership over the results. They can write the emails, build them out in the email software, and hit send. If the emails don’t perform, the marketing coordinator can then take full responsibility to problem solve and try again.

5. Prioritize employee growth and development 

Let’s continue the example from above. If your employee sends out an email campaign that doesn’t perform, you shouldn’t blame them in front of all their colleagues. Instead, accountability is about taking responsibility for solutions. In a culture of accountability, the natural next step for the marketing coordinator would be to take a class on email marketing, ask a coworker for advice, and send out another email using their newfound knowledge. The result? Improved results and no time wasted on excuses. 

That’s why if you want to foster accountability in the workplace, prioritizing employee growth and development is essential. Employees won’t feel safe taking responsibility for poor performance if they think they’ll get punished. Failures should be seen as opportunities for growth, and organizations should provide professional development opportunities to help with that process. 

6. Be trustworthy and trusting 

We’ve talked about how important it is to give your employees opportunities to be accountable. But as a leader, it can be hard let go of control and delegate. Maybe you’re struggling because you don’t want employees to be accountable for outcomes. While the concern is understandable, the best leaders learn to trust and rely on their employees.

Building trust in the workplace is just as important as building accountability. Without trust, your team won’t feel empowered to own projects — and they won’t have a reason to take responsibility for team goals when needed. This will diminish employee engagement and team morale.

There’s a time and a place for top-down leadership, where executives make all the decisions about a business. However, leaders should be aware that 68% of employees say that not feeling trusted hurts their daily efforts on the job — and almost a quarter have left companies because of the same feeling. If you don’t give your employees the opportunity to be accountable, your organization will feel the impacts. 

7. Reward and celebrate accountability 

The last step to building accountability in the workplace is celebrating and rewarding employees who demonstrate it. Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage change, and the workplace is no different. Here are some ideas for recognizing employees who show accountability at work: 

  • Include accountability as a criteria when considering employee for promotions
  • Publicly thank employees for demonstrating accountability and solving problems
  • Feature employees on social media with a story about their show of accountability 
  • Sponsor professional development opportunities for employees who take responsiblity for things they still need to learn 
  • Have regular check-ins with employees so that you can provide feedback and help them grow 


Rising to the challenge of accountability: it starts with you

We can all take control of our lives by saying “I am the subject of my life, and I am not a spectator.” — Fred Kofman

You and your employees have the power to make a choice and tell your story in the first person. “We can take control by saying ‘I am the subject of my life, and I am not a spectator,” says Kofman. “My life is mine, so I am going to be part of every problem. If you’re not part of the problem, then you can’t be part of the solution.”

The price of power is accountability. If you want to make a difference in your workplace, then you have to take ownership over the things that happen.  This is challenging — Fred describes the process of taking accountability as an acquired taste. “You’re not going to want to go to the gym until you go to the gym enough times that you can perform there,” he said. “This is similar. No child will choose kale over french fries.”

Ultimately, everything that happens in your life is a result of your ability to respond to a challenge. The challenge is a given, but what’s not a given is how you respond to it. As you work towards accountability in the workplace, give yourself and employees plenty of compassion. It’s a process, but prioritizing it will create a more engaged, satisfied workforce, and a better company.

Want to learn more about Fred Kofman? Read Authentic Communication: Transforming Difficult Conversations in the Workplace, as well as Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values. You can also watch Kofman discuss conscious business in the LinkedIn Speaker Series.

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Published June 24, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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