What Does It Mean to Be Accountable in the Workplace?

While responsibility and accountability go hand-in-hand, they are slightly different concepts. Laurie Reeves, writing for The Nest, puts it this way: “While you can be assigned a variety of responsibilities, whether or not you are accountable depends on your character.” That is, any job has responsibilities, but for an employee to have accountability in the workplace, she must take credit or blame for both success and failure. The employee owns her actions (and inactions), and seeks to rectify mistakes. She does not rely on external blame placement.

What Employees Can Do to Develop Accountability

Accountability depends on an employee’s work ethic. Entrepreneur magazine lists personal accountability along with six other traits that comprise a strong work ethic: professionalism, dependability, respectfulness, dedication, determination and humility. Personal accountability, they write, includes “avoid[ing] making excuses when things don’t go as planned.” Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, but the accountable employee does not blame others. Instead, she recognizes her fallibility and owns those mistakes as part of her professional growth.

Further, accountability in the workplace demonstrates integrity to coworkers and superiors. Entrepreneur explains this line of thinking: “everyone knows how hard it is to come forward and own your errors,” and doing so establishes trust with other employees. In addition, coworkers will see her as relatable because, as previously mentioned, everyone makes mistakes. Owning those mistakes demonstrates honesty and humility.

What Managers Can Do to Build Accountability in the Workplace

While personal accountability is an individual’s choice, managers can take steps to foster a culture of accountability in the workplace. Forbes writer Henry Browning contends that designing a workplace for accountability encourages ethical behavior among employees. Central to this environment of personal accountability is a sense of ownership of projects and results. With ownership comes some degree of autonomy. As Brown puts it, “Each member should have the obligation to seek information, give and receive feedback and point out the need for corrective action at any time.” Allowing employees to own the process of their projects means they take the initiative to correct mistakes when they arise.

In a workplace that fosters accountability, addressing mistakes is not about punishment. If employees feel like they will be punished for their mistakes, they are less likely to come forward when they make them. Mistakes are normal, and they can be learning opportunities. A good manager is not punitive; instead, she encourages risk-taking and innovation. Stifling those avenues of creativity could lead to a stagnant team.

This is not to say that employees are given free rein. On the contrary: employees must expect evaluation. As Henry Browning phrases it, “no one expects to stay under the radar.” These evaluations should not be a surprise to employees, either. Keeping evaluation processes transparent shows respect for employees and allows them yet more accountability for the work they produce.

Accountability in the workplace is a two-way street. In order for employees to own their work, they must feel safe making mistakes and taking risks. Honesty from every coworker is the aim, and managers can foster this environment through transparent evaluation processes and focusing on improvement. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time; what matters is the response to those mistakes: do you want to foster a culture of fear, or do you want a workplace where employees have agency and hold themselves and each other accountable for their work?

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