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The real meaning of accountability in the workplace

Have you ever worked in an organization that was routinely plagued by missed deadlines, broken promises, and abandoned commitments? It was probably an organization that was missing accountability in its strategy.

Why, then, is the word accountability often charged with negative connotations, stress, and even fear? The reason is that we’re accustomed to using the term to describe disciplinary measures or to assign ownership (blame) when something has gone wrong. What if instead of associating accountability with negative consequences, we focused on incorporating it thoughtfully into our organizations’ daily operations?

Redefining the meaning of accountability

The first step toward fostering a culture of accountability in the workplace is to understand and redefine what it means.

Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.”

In other words, the term doesn’t mean punishment; instead, it describes a willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions and their impact.

Henry Evans, the author of Winning with Accountability, defines it as “Clear commitments that — in the eyes of others — have been kept.” Here, the phrase “in the eyes of others” is key. In our organizations, accountability is not just about making and keeping commitments — it is also about transparency. When we make our commitments visible to our teammates, everyone is empowered to ask follow-up questions, check on progress, and help move work forward.

To promote accountability in the workplace:

  1. Start with yourself
  2. Set clear expectations
  3. Create trust and psychological safety

1. Start with yourself

Leaders are more effective in building a culture of accountability in their organization when they are willing to be held accountable by others — meaning they are open to teammates checking in about the status of commitments they have made and take ownership over the impact of their actions (or inaction).

In personality psychology, this sense of responsibility for the impact of one’s actions is known as “internal locus of control.”

Someone with an internal locus of control will believe that the things that happen to them are greatly influenced by their own abilities, actions, or mistakes.

A person with an external locus of control will tend to feel that other forces — such as random chance, environmental factors, or the actions of others — are more responsible for the events that occur in the individual’s life.

As individuals, we can help to grow accountability on our teams by openly making professional (and personal) commitments and by acknowledging how our own actions impact our organization’s — and our own — success.

2. Set clear expectations

Accepting responsibility requires clarity around what is expected. Merely saying “complete the project according to the highest standards and as soon as possible” will always be unclear unless you provide specifics.

If you ask five people what “to the highest standards means,” you’ll probably get five different answers. For one person, the highest standard for a project may be defined as delivered with the greatest amount of detail and precision; someone else may find effectiveness and agility more important than perfection. It’s the same for “as soon as possible” — does ASAP mean in an hour, tomorrow, or next week?

Unclear expectations and lack of specificity create accountability gaps. To fill these gaps and reduce ambiguity, try to be as specific as possible. Test out the following strategies:

  • Define specific timeframes like “October 3rd at 5PM your time”
  • State who is responsible for the project and effort
  • Describe what the completed version of the project should look like (goal and outcome)
  • Provide examples

3. Create trust and psychological safety

The authors of Crucial Accountability advise starting an accountability conversation by creating safety — psychological safety — for your team.

“If you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything — even about failed promises.”

Your teammates will feel unsafe if they think you don’t care about their goals or that you don’t respect them. It’s all about honoring objectives and framing respect as mutual.

You must establish common ground before you can dive into problems or concerns with a teammate. Let them know that your objective is to solve performance gaps and improve things for both of you.

Finding common ground and building foundations of trust and psychological safety are easier said than done. But incorporating daily, lightweight moments of connection into your team’s routine can help improve feelings of safety and trust. With tools like Check-ins in Range, teams can build stronger connections over time (both personally and professionally) by sharing what and how they are doing each day.


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