Two employees discuss why is accountability important in the workplace.
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March 14, 2019
    Article highlights
  • Definition of accountability.
  • Barriers to accountability in the workplace.
  • Benefits of accountability.

Accountability in the workplace fuels successful organizations, but it can be difficult to implement.

In fact, according to a Partners in Leadership Workplace Accountability Study, 82% of respondents said they have “limited to no” ability to hold others accountable successfully. On the other hand, 91% of respondents rank accountability near the top of their company’s development needs.

As author Pete Lowe points out in HRD Connect, “Real accountability happens in the context of a culture that supports trust and genuine teamwork …. Genuine accountability comes with a fresh honesty that acknowledges where things can improve and a humility that tempers actions.”

Accountability, then, is necessary, difficult to achieve, yet attainable. But it might help to start with the definition of accountability first to understand why accountability in the workplace is important.

Definition of Accountability

Many people think of accountability in terms of what it isn’t – trying to “catch” employees doing something wrong, ratting out coworkers, or laying down a strict set of rules administered with a punitive approach.

Rather than creating a proactive atmosphere of responsibility, this negative approach drives a reactive culture of “management by rules.” But there’s a better way.

Accountability in the workplace is all about setting and holding people to a common expectation by clearly defining the company’s mission, values, and goals. Employee accountability means holding all levels of employees (from the part-time hourly worker to the C-suite executive) responsible for accomplishing business goals.

While accountability at work is critically important, it also needs to be balanced with the need to give employees autonomy in their roles. They must feel empowered to do their jobs so they can take ownership of their work and strive for excellence. Fostering this culture of employee accountability helps yield a high-performing organization.

Barriers to Accountability in the Workplace

The importance of accountability can’t be understated, but achieving it can be difficult. Companies and teams often face a variety of challenges and hurdles when trying to develop a culture of workplace accountability.

Sometimes, the lack of accountability starts with individuals who fail to meet expectations. Other times it manifests at the team or company level by simply “accepting the unacceptable.” Left unchecked, these bad organizational habits can weaken clarity about roles and responsibilities and further erode accountability.

Another culprit? If a business operates with fuzzy priorities or vague expectations, accountability at work weakens or falls apart altogether.

Consultant Karim Bashay points out in HR Magazine that, “Expectations that aren’t communicated can grind progress to a halt. Not only do these implicit expectations result in confusion over tasks, they also cause tension in relationships.” This, of course, can lead to distrust within the organization.

Make no mistake – accountability is hard work and requires a tremendous amount of consistency and follow-through from both leadership and employees. The challenges and barriers are real and, for most, difficult to overcome. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.

Benefits of Accountability

If the challenges of accountability in business are real, so are the benefits. And while building a culture of accountability can be complex, it’s both necessary and achievable.

Builds trust

When you hold all employees accountable for doing what they are supposed to do, it breeds trust among individuals and teams. It allows people to count on each other, whether that means meeting deadlines, fulfilling duties, or feeling comfortable enough to approach a co-worker or manager for help.

While it can be hard for employees to ask for help, fostering this safe space to seek advice builds independence and trust, both of which strengthen teams. On the flip side, managers need to lead with transparency, communicate openly, and treat employees fairly with the guidance of policies and standards that apply to everyone. This, too, builds a trusting environment.

Two business men working on a laptop to answer the question whyis accountability important in the workplace.

Improved performance

Fostering a culture of accountability increases efficiency and boosts productivity. How? When employees know who is responsible for what, it eliminates confusion and saves time, allowing individuals to meet clearly defined expectations.

But having clear accountabilities alone is not enough, advises Bashay again in HR Magazine. “Having specific and actionable feedback and evaluation mechanisms is key in measuring people’s success in roles. You must also have a way to evaluate performance.”

Tying accountability to performance also means you proactively pay attention to both process and results by correcting sub-par efforts and rewarding excellent performance.

When employees turn in poor work or fail to meet expectations, hold them accountable, educate them on expectations, and help them improve. It’s just as important to recognize and reward employees who follow guidelines, act appropriately, and meet or exceed expectations.

As the Forbes article points out, “Clear expectations for everyone on the team coupled with an understanding of accountability for their performance are the key ingredients to improving confidence, morale, and production within the team.”

It helps to look at employee accountability as two sides of the same coin. It takes everyone to achieve organizational accountability and it also belongs to everyone in the organization. This accountability mentality boosts performance at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

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Strengthens culture

According to an article in Forbes, a lack of accountability “can have a snowball effect throughout the team.” When you embed accountability into the fabric of your company, you make accountability everyone’s responsibility by “establishing meaningful goals and team buy-in, building trust through support and encouragement, empowering everyone on the team and celebrating successes together.”

Author Pete Lowe echoes this point in HRD Connect, writing, “When an organization’s culture is embedded in honesty and integrity it enables people to acknowledge mistakes without fear of blame and to work with the team to reflect, learn and move forward positively.”

It takes a consistent effort, starting from the top, to strengthen company culture. And it requires an honest assessment of what’s working and what’s not. But with accountability at the heart of your organization, you will fortify company culture and achieve greater success.

Better compliance

When it comes to compliance, why is accountability important? In today’s ever-changing landscape of laws, regulations, standards, and guidelines, compliance touches every industry.

As a vital part of operations, compliance depends on accountability in business, holding employees and teams responsible for their decisions, behavior, and actions. Being accountable means working with integrity. And by improving accountability, you reduce your risk of facing fines, lawsuits, oversight, or other consequences of non-compliance.

Employee reviewing crucial policy content on her computer.

Getting Started

Rather than feeling overwhelmed at the thought of creating enterprise-wide accountability, just build on what you have already by taking one step at a time.

A good first step? Ensure employees follow your company’s guidelines and meet expectations by holding them accountable to your crucial policies and procedures.

By using a robust, automated policy management system, like PowerDMS, you can give employees easy access to your critical documents. Plus, PowerDMS can help how you simply and easily manage, track, monitor, review, and revise your policies and procedures. Think of it as a built-in accountability system at your fingertips.

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