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What does it mean to build a culture of workplace accountability?

Accountability is a common concept, but what does it really mean in the context of your small business? Engagement, responsibility and ownership come to mind, but a workplace culture of accountability has a different feel. When you foster a culture of accountability, your staff works together to find solutions to problems. Your employees deliver results and hold each other responsible for their actions.

When something falls through the cracks, learning from a mistake is infinitely more valuable than blaming the culprit; accountable workplace cultures help foster growth and improvement. If you’ve struggled to create your own positive workplace culture, you can use this model to develop your enterprise’s own ethos.

Start from the top.

Before you can expect an augmented commitment from your existing staff, you should realize that accountability in any organization should start from the top. Leaders, managers, employees and business owners all work together within the same company, and no one group should operate by more or fewer standards. Apply the expectations to all levels in your organization, and make sure you lead by example. As a business owner, you’ll need to own up to your mistakes and take responsibility for your actions in order for your employees to follow in your footsteps.


Hire people who will take responsibility.

You need great material from which to build your organization. Therefore, hiring the right people is important. You have probably heard that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Most HR professionals would agree that for hiring, it is important to probe for past behaviors and actions, and their results, to have a better idea of how an employee might perform in similar circumstances.

We suggest looking for people with a history of accountability. What types of roles have they held in the past? Did they seek out leadership positions in school, in personal pursuits or in previous jobs?

Ask interview questions about specific situations where an employee demonstrated accountable behaviors. For instance, ask about a time when, despite planning, the employee failed. Follow up with questions like, What did you learn from the failure? What did you do to resolve or fix the situation? What did you do differently the next time you were confronted with a similar situation?

Alternatively, you could ask about a time when this person chose to honor a commitment or do the right thing despite the fact that that action caused personal hardship. Again, follow up to get specifics. Listen carefully. Does the candidate blame other people, or make excuses, or does he/she take responsibility for the outcomes? Does he make disclosures? Does she focus on the problem or the solutions?

Set clear goals.

The specifics will largely depend on the nature of your business, but the idea is you should empower your staff to make choices that will help your business reach and exceed those goals. When your employees truly own their roles and responsibilities, they can bring their personal expertise to the table and have the freedom to step out of the box to solve problems. Modern, nimble businesses don’t silo departments or reduce an employee’s role to rigidly defined responsibilities. Instead, they encourage their employees to collaborate and operate as owners. Of course, it’s important to reward your staff for their exceptional work and for reaching goals. If you have room in your budget or working capital, it may be even more motivating to establish rewards for reaching those objectives.


Provide updates on progress.

People need information to course correct toward their goals.

Feedback can come from customer or employee surveys, ongoing project updates, key listening posts with critical stakeholders, or some combination of these. The most effective form of feedback, however, comes from frequent conversations between managers and employees.

When preparing to provide a progress update, managers should not ask themselves if they have all the data, but instead if they have the right data. Data that are performance orientated so they can speak to the behavior that has allowed the progress.

Overcommunicate when in doubt.

If you’re new to the idea of a culture of accountability, you won’t end up with a well-oiled machine overnight. Getting there will likely result in a learning curve, potential personnel changes or an adjusted workflow. Before you fully develop a system that works for your specific model, you should lean on overcommunication. If you wait until a performance review that’s days or weeks away to provide feedback to an employee, it’s likely too late for that person to adjust their actions for the issue at hand. When at all possible, provide feedback immediately, and not just for negative actions. Reward good behaviors as much as you provide negative feedback.


Keys to Promoting Accountability in Your Business

The other key parts of a caring culture include nurturing employees and leaders who are straightforward, thoughtful, and resolute in their approach to the business. All my years of experience in business resonate with that assessment, and allow entrepreneurs to explain to team members what accountability means, and what steps are required to get there:

  • Be willing to proclaim that something needs to be done. We all know of examples where employees and managers see the same problem occur over and over again but never raise a flag about it. You have to care about the business and your workers if you want others to be accountable.
  • Accept personal responsibility for tackling an issue. Apathetic people are quick to point the finger at someone else, or defer by saying “It’s not my job.” Leaders must send the message — and show by exampl — that delivering quality solutions to customers is everyone’s business. People working on problems must be rewarded.
  • Make positive choices or decisions to act. Employees who don’t think they have enough training or sense of the mission will shy away from making big decisions, which is vital for accountability. Make sure your company empowers its employees through positivity and doesn’t allow inertia or negative emotions to creep in.
  • Think deeply about the consequences of each choice. Are you working to get a problem off your back, or are you only serving your ego? Are you creating the best long-term solution for the customer, or are you merely using an expedient? Think before you act.
  • Set high expectations for yourself and your team. When you set your own sights high, you cannot help but inspire others. When you know others are taking their lead from you, it’s easier to stay accountable. Inspired team members will then set their own target higher, and that momentum will lead to better customer experiences and business success.


Final thoughts: creating a thoughtful and accountable company culture

Creating accountability in the workplace means creating a culture where everyone is assuming responsibility at work. Achieving this result depends heavily on good communication: if your team is on the same page then a sense of unity will make everyone more comfortable on the job. Truly, accountability is the key to driving a high performance culture.