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Accountability in the Workplace: Does Your Company Pass the Test?

Jul 13, 2020

Make a Difference card with nature background-1The first time I heard about accountability in the workplace was the summer I worked as an intern at Zondervan in Grand Rapids, MI. My job was to come up with a companywide training program around their shared values.

One of those values was accountability. I soon found out, accountability in the workplace is so much more than “Did we meet our numbers?” 

What is accountability?

Let's start with what it isn't. Accountability is not ...

  • throwing an attitude around or playing "gotcha"
  • berating our workmates in the name of accountability
  • holding one person or group accountable while giving another a pass
  • picking battles that aren't ours to pick (it helps to ask, "Am I the one who needs to address this?")

Accountability in the workplace means modeling and upholding a set of standards for performance and conduct—respectfully. This is how you gain credibility.  It's also how you inspire top performance. 

By contrast, a lack of accountability will drain and demotivate your entire team, including those who are self-motivated. So even though accountability can be wildly uncomfortable, it is also (wildly) necessary. 

At the extreme, lack of accountability can lead to tragedy and lawsuits. Be better than that. Solve problems while they're small or comparatively small. 

10 examples of accountability

  1. Playing by the rules and policies of your organization
  2. Following accepted protocols, rather than relying on others to pick up the slack
  3. Meeting deadlines
  4. Admitting error(s) and taking responsibility for correcting them
  5. Showing up on time
  6. Following up and following through, when you say you will, without being reminded
  7. Asking for help instead making excuses; being proactive
  8. Saying "I'm sorry" in ways that can be felt and believed; making restitution when necessary
  9. Giving your all on team projects; not being "that one" who doesn't come through
  10. Creating an environment where others feel free to hold one another accountable and know how to do so with tact and professionalism

A few words about #6, following up and following through: When I was finishing my master's program, I had a panel interview for my dream job. Everyone on the panel seemed to like me—except for one. So when I did get hired, I made a point (subtly) of building equity with this co-worker.

All it took was respecting her time, respecting her as a person, and turning in my monthly reports—on time, every time. Most people just didn't. In time, the two of us gained tremendous respect for each other and a solid working relationship. We're still friends today. That's the power of accountability.

How to increase accountability in the workplace

  • Make accountability a requirement, not simply a platitude
  • Model your expectations; this applies to everything from performance results to everyday work habits
  • Clarify your expectationsagain, this applies to both performance and conduct
  • Check for understanding; make sure your entire team is clear on what's expected and what happens if expectations aren't met
  • Give your entire staff the tools they need to be accountable (e.g., tools, software, authority)
  • Intervene sooner rather than later, especially when you start to see a pattern of behavior that needs addressing

16 quotes on accountability in the workplace

  1. "The right thing to do and the hard thing to do are usually the same." ―Steve Maraboli
  2. "When people feel accountable and included, it is more fun." ―Alan Mulally
  3. "Personal accountability requires mindfulness, acceptance, honesty, and courage." ―Shelby Martin
  4. "Accountability is the glue that bonds commitment to results." ―Will Craig
  5. "It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable." ―Moliere
  6. "You can't talk about leadership without talking about responsibility and accountability." ―Buck Rodgers
  7. "Anyone can possess, anyone can profess, but it is an altogether different thing to confess." ―Shannon L. Alder
  8. "The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it." ―Lou Holtz
  9. "When we stop making excuses for ourselves, a world of possibilities opens up to us." ―Mark Wardell
  10. "Accountability at every level is critical, and leadership begins at the top." ―Mary Landrieu
  11. "When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.” ―Brené Brown
  12. "At the end of the day we are accountable to ourselves - our success is a result of what we do." ―Catherine Pulsifer
  13. "Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else." ―Les Brown
  14. "Accountability is a statement of personal promise, both to yourself and to the people around you, to deliver specific defined results." ―Brian Dive
  15. "Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame." ―Courtney Lynch
  16. "Holding your team accountable isn't an exercise in control. It's an exercise in empowerment." ―Unknown

Culture of accountability: this is the true test

Think about an important virtue you learned, growing up. Maybe it was hard work, punctuality, or the importance of writing thank-you notes. (All three of these, by the way, are useful in the workplace.)

Whatever that virtue is, chances are you learned it not just by watching, but also by having that virtue or value reinforced. Accountability in the workplace is no different. 

Just like the virtue(s) you learned growing up, accountability has to be taught at every turn. It has to be woven into the fabric of your company culture. It has to be taught both verbally and nonverbally.

As an example, during that summer I interned at Zondervan, I remember hearing a story of someone politely and privately holding the CEO accountable. The person who came forth was not high on the company ladder. But guess what? His point was still well taken. More than that, it was heard and heeded.

Teach your team to give the truth in love. Teach them to receive it that way. We live in a world almost hungry to find fault. That's not accountability—that's just hostility. Aim instead for civility, and watch what it does for performance and morale.

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What's been one of your most memorable experiences with accountability in the workplace? Please leave a comment below.

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