One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional workplace culture is the inward mindset. And with it, comes staggering financial implications. According to the Gallup State of Global Workforce, there is an annual loss of $550 billion due to disengaged employees. The same report describes $8 billion in lost revenue in workplaces lacking psychological safety. By some estimates, quiet quitting and turnover from ‘the great resignation’ have cost American businesses over $1 trillion. However, when companies cultivate teams of accountable people, the impact on culture, success and even creativity, can be profound.
Creativity, a skill linked to nine of the top ten essential skills by the World Economic Forum, is a driving force when innovating, helping companies to make headway on tough roadblocks or business challenges.
But cultivating a workplace environment where personal responsibility and commitment are prioritized requires a strategic approach from leadership. Research demonstrates that when individuals experience a sense of ownership in their work, it not only shapes their perception of the company, but also facilitates a spirit of generosity toward colleagues, enhancing overall morale, productivity and fruitful collaboration. Developing accountable employees is about creating a culture of ownership and responsibility, and when team members feel that they have a personal stake in their work, they are more likely to take responsibility to achieve success.
Creating a Culture of Ownership
At the heart of many workplace challenges lies the natural tendency for individuals to prioritize their own needs over the goals, objectives and obstacles of other team members. This self-centered focus can hinder collaboration, prevent teamwork and serve as a detriment to productivity. Common examples of this include emailing colleagues with last-minute requests, expecting them to drop everything to accommodate it, or finding allies in conflicts to justify one’s own stance in a disagreement.
To build a great organizational culture, employees must go beyond simply avoiding these negative behaviors and instead embrace accountability, focusing on results rather than blame, productively navigating tension and recognizing how their actions affect their peers. Such a shift in workplace norms is not an overnight process but a gradual cultural transformation. Part of this focus involves leaders exemplifying these values themselves and encouraging them in every team member.
To empower your teams, it’s vital to take a new approach: in lieu of holding people accountable, the more productive path lies in developing accountable people – an endeavor that requires mutual effort between leaders, managers and employees alike. Without employee accountability, your workplace will suffer from an accountability gap – when people aren’t sure what they’re responsible for, resulting in unmet expectations, bad behavior and broken commitments.
Establish Clear Expectations
First and foremost, people can’t be held accountable – by peers, leadership or otherwise – unless they understand exactly what they’re accountable for. To develop accountable people, everyone must work together to establish clear lines of responsibility to ensure everyone has a strong idea of what they own. This involves defining roles, setting clear goals and communicating job descriptions effectively.
Employees should know what they’re expected to achieve, the standards expected of them as they work to meet objectives, as well as how their performance will be reviewed and evaluated. Clarity in expectations is pivotal to creating pathways to accountability.
Reframing Failure, Move Away From Fear
Once expectations are clearly defined, the next step in fostering employee accountability is to reframe failures as the opportunity to capture valuable learnings. In other words, creating a culture where it is safe to make mistakes or bring open-ended issues up without having a solution can maintain space for exploration. A team that feels safe and free to solve problems together can generate a sense of comradery and collaboration, allowing employees to work creatively toward something as a united front.
Accountability in a culture where failure isn’t underpinned by fear (or shame) means people are able to own their mistakes, learn from them without punishment and put knowledge to work to unlock progress. Promoting the idea that setbacks offer chances for learning can further foster a culture of growth and transparency. This mindset nurtures qualities like resilience, adaptability and a willingness to confront challenges, all of which are crucial for innovation. The popular startup adage, “fail fast, fail often and fail forward,” encompasses this approach well by prioritizing learning to advance matters over the possibility of shame or fear from the burden of failing, always with momentum into the future.
Checks Ins Are Essential
Accountability flourishes within an environment that encourages employees to express their opinions, take calculated risks and admit to their mistakes without fear. Promoting open communication showcases trust in a team, both as individuals and as participating members serving a company’s larger mission. Establishing regular check-ins at an agreed upon cadence provides dedicated opportunities for precise feedback, a proven method to enhance employee engagement and further bolster accountability – direct evidence that employee engagement correlates with review cycle frequency.
Likewise, these conversations provide an opportunity to evaluate effort and impact, rather than solely focusing on outcomes. This intentional space can be used to acknowledge good performances while constructively addressing areas of improvement to help employees understand their strengths, how to grow and to redefine expectations for renewed accountability.
Pathways for Growth
When employees can connect the dots between their personal growth, career progression and the company’s mission, they gain a deeper sense of purpose and commitment. This alignment encourages them to take ownership of their decisions and actions, contributing to a larger culture of accountability. Organizations that prioritize and invest in their teams’ development tend to foster a higher level of accountability within their workforce.
To effectively lead your team in this way, it is imperative to establish clear pathways for career development and growth. These pathways not only empower individuals but also cultivate a workforce that is invested in the organization’s success and committed to achieving its goals.
Moving Mindsets Toward Greater Trust
When approached with thoughtfulness and consistency, enabling teams to cultivate accountability can have a significant impact on a company, resulting in the benefits of an engaged and productive workforce. Transparency catalyzes trust, and trust is the cornerstone of any successful team. By acknowledging your employees as people first, then working to foster personal responsibility and commitment, you can yield a workplace environment where mutual respect and interdependence can flourish. Ultimately, the journey to success begins with a commitment to developing accountability and valuing the people who make it all possible.
Mitch Warner is a Managing Partner at The Arbinger Institute.