The word “accountability” is a loaded phrase, especially amid a global pandemic and a cultural revolution. So, what does it mean to hold yourself accountable these days? How does accountability in the workplace impact the way employees collaborate and conduct themselves?
First, let’s address what exactly accountability in the workplace means. Then, we’ll explore why it’s important and share three ways to hold yourself accountable at work.
What does accountability in the workplace mean?
Accountability in the workplace can be broken down into two primary categories: day-to-day work and communication and conflict. Holding yourself accountable for day-to-day work means communicating about projects, your role within them, wins and failures, and ways to improve in the future.
Holding yourself accountable during communication and conflict is slightly more nuanced. It involves owning your failures, communicating about them openly, and issuing a real and genuine apology if necessary. We’ll go into this in detail below.
Holding yourself accountable for day-to-day work means taking responsibility for your projects and assigned work. Individuals who hold themselves accountable in this way tend to communicate frequently about the status of their work, what they are doing to meet deadlines and goals, and how their projects will impact other teams. Their communication is often proactive and occurs far in advance of a project’s completion. This kind of accountability also means taking ownership of both your successes and failures — these individuals take responsibility when they don’t achieve their goals.
Another component of accountability is ensuring that if a task falls to you or your department, it gets done without impeding the work of others.
Communication and Conflict
When dealing with conflict, accountability in the workplace is a bit more complex. Part of holding yourself accountable for workplace failures means learning how to deliver a genuine and real apology. Later, we’ll go over the steps necessary to deliver a sincere workplace apology.
Why is accountability in the workplace important?
Accountability in the workplace is essential to the quality of the work employees produce. It’s also key to building strong relationships between employees (and even leadership).
If employees aren’t held accountable for missing deadlines, mediocre work, incomplete projects, or punctuality, your team makes the statement that these behaviors are acceptable, even though they shouldn’t be. Important details start slipping through the cracks and quality of work gradually lessens. Additionally, if employees aren’t held accountable in times of conflict, communication between teams erodes. Departments become more siloed, meetings become more difficult to schedule, and projects take longer to complete.
Accountability in the workplace helps ensure every member of your team pulls their weight without relying on others to get the work done for them. In fact, if management doesn’t hold employees accountable for their actions, it creates an unfair working environment for employees with the motivation to complete projects on their own.
Now that we have a grasp on the importance of accountability in the workplace, let’s explore the three most important ways you can promote it and build a safe and healthy working environment.
3 Important Ways to Support Accountability in the Workplace
It’s important to remember that being held accountable is not a negative thing. The misconception that accountability is automatically linked to negativity comes from leadership’s tendency to mandate commitments from the top down. Instead, consider creating cascading goals that allow for more creativity, autonomy, and trust between management and leadership.
1. Create an Environment of Trust
Before we discuss the value of trust, let’s discuss how people are motivated. There are two primary types of motivation: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is when a person is motivated by factors beyond their enjoyment of the work to accomplish a goal. An example of this is feeling pressure to complete a project for fear of losing one’s job. The extrinsic pressure of a potential job loss is enough to make the employee work long hours, but that employee’s happiness and faith in the company will quickly erode.
Intrinsic motivation is when a person is motivated by their own internal compass to accomplish a goal. An example of this is an employee staying late to finish a project because they believe it is fundamentally important to both the company and your customers. The employee’s commitment to company goals is what drives them to work hard.
While neither of these types of motivation are wrong, leaning too heavily on extrinsic motivation will have the opposite effect on employees and demotivate them. Extrinsic motivation tends to rely on fear-based motivation to push employees to work harder, which quickly dissolves trust. Employees who don’t feel secure at their jobs are less likely to hold themselves accountable for mistakes out of fear, which creates bigger problems for your business in the long-term.
Your employees are less likely to hold themselves accountable if they fear management. By creating an environment based on trust, you open up lines of communication so employees can admit to mistakes and shortcomings more openly. The key to accountability is not punishing employees every time they misstep, but rather encouraging them to hold themselves accountable for their work without the extrinsic pressure of punishment.
2. Establish Clear Goals, Then Follow Up
Accountability in the workplace is only possible when employees understand what they are accountable for. They need clearly defined expectations, whether they are defined in the short- or long-term.
Set Team-Wide Goals
To set effective goals, managers should start by clearly communicating how your team as a whole will be held accountable. At the beginning of the year, identify what your company’s objectives are and then evaluate how exactly your team will participate in reaching those goals.
Set Goals for Individuals
Once your team clearly understands what goals they’re accountable for, managers should set measurable goals for individual team members that align with their roles. All employees should have defined metrics to report on every month that determine whether they are delivering on their commitments.
Provide Frequent Updates on Progress
Next, leaders should prioritize ongoing communication about how everyone’s personal contributions and successes impact the organization’s achievements. Set up weekly meetings with your team to check in on progress toward their individual goals. Every individual goal should fit into the organization’s bigger picture, so your team should have a better understanding of how they are collectively working toward your company’s goals by the end of each meeting.
3. Teach Employees How to Issue a Real Apology
Being accountable for your actions in the workplace requires open and honest communication. If a team member regularly blocks a project from moving forward, inconveniences other teams, or fails to meet their established goals, their behavior is likely to create conflict between them and other team members.
To resolve this, make sure your employees understand how to hold themselves accountable by issuing a real and genuine apology, as opposed to one devoid of any actual meaning. This will go far to promote accountability in the workplace.
Managers should make sure their employees are clear on how to issue a real apology. Here are the guidelines every employee should take when issuing an apology to another team member:
When apologizing for any workplace conflict, start by avoiding excuses. Accountability means truly owning up to your mistakes, and making excuses — no matter how valid they may be — distracts from the most important part of the conversation: your apology.
Own the Results
A sincere apology includes true ownership of the mistake. For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry you were upset that I missed this deadline,” try reframing your language to focus on your actions by saying, “I’m sorry I missed this deadline.” This kind of accountability ensures that the employee understands their part in the conflict and will take future action to avoid this mistake again.
Encourage employees to listen to what others have to say without focusing their attention on what they want to say in response. This ensures they truly listen to the other party and understand their points instead of turning their attention inward. Most importantly, emphasize that employees should let others finish their thoughts before jumping in. Employees might even consider taking notes to document what the other person says so the conversation can be referred back to later.
Outline Next Steps
This is the most important step in the process. The key to issuing an effective apology is to outline actionable corrective steps the employee should take to rectify the situation. These steps should be specific, timely, and achievable. For example, if an employee has not responded to the last three emails a coworker sent, they can assure the coworker they will respond in a timely manner moving forward.
Accountability for the Long-Run
Accountability in the workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and practice to establish, and it starts with you. With these three crucial steps in mind, you can build an environment based on trust, where employees feel empowered to hold themselves and each other accountable for their actions and goals. This way, your business is set up for success in the long-run.
Erin Nelson is a Digital Marketing Manager at Fond with over six years of B2B SaaS marketing experience. Erin has authored dozens of articles on employee rewards and recognition and frequently researches new trends in R&R. In their spare time, you can find them playing music, reading about socioeconomic and gender-based politics, and listening to true crime podcasts.