Accountability is critical to a company’s success. It strengthens the culture and creates a healthy, positive work environment, one that brings out the best in every employee.

Accountability not only engages your employees and encourages them to take ownership of their work, but it also helps them understand how their actions fit in the grand scheme of things, imbuing their work with meaning.

The outcome is happier and more productive employees who do more meaningful work and bolster your bottom line in the process.

What is accountability?

In the simplest terms possible, accountability is about making sure that the outcome is in line with what was promised and that every individual takes the initiative whenever possible.

So, how can you see the effects of a culture built on accountability?

Deadlines will be met. Mistakes won’t be repeated. The quality of the work will be consistent. The entire team won’t vary that much with regard to performance. And, there will be a sense of trust and comfort permeating through your offices.

To achieve such an environment, you cannot base your company on fear. It would be very counterproductive of you to reprimand employees every time one of them makes a mistake.

Instead, you want to build a culture based on trust and mutual support. You also want to find the right incentives to motivate your employees to take action and do the right thing.

Most importantly, you need to remember that accountability isn’t a one-time thing, some temporary measure you take during a project; it is an ongoing effort that requires consistency and patience to pay off.

What are some of the impediments that hinder building a culture of accountability?

Given how important accountability is, you’d expect every company to work hard towards instilling it within its culture. However, there are a few hurdles along the way that might slow even the best companies down:

#1 Unclear expectations

If your employees are unaware of what’s expected of them at work, how do you expect them to deliver any results?

Maybe you think that giving your employees free reign will increase their sense of autonomy and independence, spurring them to take action whenever the opportunity presents itself. But this only makes it difficult for them to take ownership of their work and roles in the company.

#2 A culture of fear

According to a survey by AMA, one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way between people and their willingness to take responsibility for their mistakes was the fear of the repercussions, especially in organizations where there were extreme punitive measures.

#3 A lack of engagement by the employees

Almost two-thirds of the current workforce is disengaged from the work they do. This means that these individuals may not feel valued at the place where they spend more than 40 hours a week, and plenty of them might feel that their company doesn’t listen to them in the first place. Why would any of these people own their work?

#4 Avoidance of confrontation

For many companies, one of the biggest barriers to building a culture of accountability is management’s inability to have tough conversations with their employees.

A large part of accountability hinges on addressing mistakes and figuring out how to rectify them, both of which involve uncomfortable conversations about performance, behavior, and even personal capabilities.

However, if management avoids having these tough conversations, it’s nearly impossible to prompt any changes.

#5 Lack of alignment

There is nothing more disheartening than a leader who doesn’t practice what they preach, who implores their employees to take ownership of their work only to fail to do so themselves. So, to truly establish a culture of accountability, management needs to start with themselves.

How to build a culture of accountability?

Having looked at how different problems might impede accountability, we are better positioned to explore different ideas to change things around:

#1 Set clear expectations

The first and most obvious thing you want to do is to set clear expectations from the outset. This means being clear on what the end outcome should be, how this outcome will be measured, and what game plan has been adopted to achieve this outcome.

In short, your employees need to know beforehand what success looks like.

#2 Involve your employees in the planning process

When setting these expectations, you should involve your employees in the process. This ensures that you have buy-in from the start, and it makes your employees more amenable to being held accountable for the results as they had a hand in putting the game plan.

Moreover, it ensures that your employees are not only aware of the company’s overall strategy but are also clear on how their individual actions feed into the larger picture.

One way you can ensure that your employees take part in the planning process is to encourage them to participate in team meetings. This means giving them the power to dictate how the meetings play out and what gets discussed in these meetings.

It also means sharing meeting agendas beforehand and motivating employees to take notes during every meeting.

#3 Assign each task to one individual

When you assign a task to a single individual, this is a clear sign that, should things go south, this individual will be held accountable. It also means that it will be the individual’s responsibility to fix things.

More importantly, when everybody else on the team understands who owns which tasks, they will be comfortable deferring to the responsible individual in all matters concerning said tasks.

In other words, if you make Alice responsible for managing your company’s social media presence, then everybody else on your team will both be happy to follow Alice’s leadership should she need help and ask her before doing anything that will affect your social media.

#4 Alleviate the fear of failure

Although you should hold your employees to their word, especially if they were the ones who came up with the plan and agreed to their assigned roles, how you do this can make all the difference.

Avoid being overly punitive. Always respond in a manner proportional to the outcomes, which means that different outcomes will necessitate different consequences.

You must also be clear on the reason behind each outcome. For instance, if one of your employees fails to meet their obligations, you have to figure out why this happened. Should the fault lie with the employee, then they need to be held accountable.

Alternatively, should it boil down to something outside of their control- for instance, they lacked the necessary resources, then you need to confront this root cause and address publicly, even if the root cause is you.

If the failure was your employee’s fault, you should determine an appropriate response. For example, you might decide to avoid entrusting them with such a large role for a while. Maybe, you’ll find it more suitable to deny them a promotion.

Whatever you choose, just make sure it fits the crime.

The flip side of this coin is that when your employees succeed, you need to publicly reward them. You need to strike a balance and make sure that just as your employees are aware of the punishment, they are aware of the rewards. This will increase motivation and drive.

#5 Combat the lack of engagement

To truly engage your employees, you want to empower them, and you want to make sure that their work has meaning for them. Otherwise, they will feel disconnected from what they are doing, feeling obliged to clock in at 9 only to ditch out the minute the clock strikes 5.

Give your employees all the resources they need. Before you can hold your employees accountable, you should make sure that they have all the necessary tools to get the job done. If you don’t do this, then it wouldn’t be fair to hold your employees responsible when they come up short.

One way you can ensure that your employees have all the necessary tools they need is to track your assets. This means knowing what assets you have on hand, which ones are broken, which ones might be missing or misplaced, and which ones are in for refurbishment.

That way, no employee can ever blame their failure on elements outside of their control, forcing them to take personal responsibility for their shortcomings.

Always highlight the bigger picture. From an employee’s standpoint, there are two bigger pictures. On the one hand, there is the question of how the current task relates to the company’s overall goals.

On the other hand, there is another question of how the task relates to the employee’s personal and professional goals?

You have to be able to answer both these questions. This connects the employees to the work they are doing and makes it that much more personal for them.

#6 Don’t avoid confrontation

For many managers, confrontation can be difficult: It involves hurting people’s feelings, saying things that may come across as unpleasant, and losing cherished relationships.

Nevertheless, these conversations are necessary in a work environment, and avoiding them can only cause more harm than good.

There is no remedy here, no secret method or tip that will help you overcome this challenge. You’re just going to have to bite the bullet.

However, you can make the conversation less confrontational. For one thing, you should focus more on the individual’s performance rather than on the individual themselves. The less personal the whole experience is, the better off the results are bound to be.

Also, rather than assuming you know what happened, you should start by trying to understand the other person’s perspective and how they view the current situation. This will give you a clearer insight into why something happened. You should ask the employee about their thought process and how they reached certain decisions.

Additionally, take the time and explain to your employees where they went wrong. You want to give them constructive criticism, and you also want them to understand how their actions, or inactions, affected the rest of their team members.

Finally, whatever you do, do it immediately after the event that spurred it. For instance, if one of your employees failed to meet a specific deadline, don’t wait a while to talk to them about it; address it immediately.

This is important as it can stop a small mistake from morphing into a big catastrophe. Additionally, you are always better off addressing problems when they are still fresh in everybody’s minds.

However, whatever you do, be sure to bear in mind other people’s feelings. No one wants to work for a manager who demolishes their self-esteem.

#7 Deal with the lack of alignment

When it comes to alignment, it is the leadership’s responsibility to set an example for the rest of the team.

Before expecting others to be accountable, you must first hold yourself accountable. This means owning up to your mistakes as soon as they happen. You have to fess up when you mess up.

Otherwise, if you don’t lead by example, your employees will feel that you are leading them according to a double standard, one where their feet are always held to the fire, but you always walk away unscathed. This can dishearten even the most motivated employees.

Better yet, the next time you make a decision that blows up in your face, don’t just admit it to the rest of your team; take the time to figure out what went wrong and explain how you will work to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

You need to set an example of how you embrace your mistakes, learn from them, and never repeat them.

Putting it all together

You need your employees to trust you and place their faith in you and each other. For this to happen, each employee must know that their efforts won’t go to waste and that their colleagues are working hard towards the betterment of the entire organization.

To that end, you need to establish clear communication, which has to start with crystal clear expectations. You also want to find ways to keep your employees engaged with the work and make sure that they are not afraid of failure.

This might mean that you will have to have a few uncomfortable conversations every once in a while, but if you lead by example, your employees will be more accepting and willing to take ownership of their own work.