Inspiring a Culture of Personal Accountability throughout your Organization

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”

―Theodore Roosevelt

Personal AccountabilitySometimes the greatest challenges facing a business have nothing to do with its competitors or customers but instead arise from within the company itself. Certain behavioral or cultural patterns among management or staff, for example, can undermine any company’s pursuit of its goals. In particular, if you or your employees lack personal accountability, your organization will struggle to succeed in the long run, regardless of the strength of your business plan or the quality of your product or service.

What’s the difference between companies that achieve long-term success and those that don’t? Successful companies are full of employees and managers who constantly push themselves to meet—and exceed—their goals. This self-motivation is marked by a culture of personal accountability that permeates the entire organization.

What Is Personal Accountability?

Personal accountability is the internal obligation a person feels to complete a project or fulfill a task to which he or she has committed. It’s a personal choice and an attitude that manifest in actions to own issues and their outcomes (good and bad). It’s an outright rejection of “It’s not my job” and an embrace of “I’m responsible for this.”

If personal accountability is strong in your company culture, you’ll find that your workers assume responsibility for finding solutions by working through problems. Rather than assign blame elsewhere, they stand by their word and honor their commitments.

On the flip side, inherent in companies that lack personal accountability is the belief that “someone else is preventing me from being successful.” “They” aren’t doing “their” job. “They” need to improve. The focus in these statements and the mentality behind them are about fixing the behavior of others. That mindset is negative and dangerous—and when it dominates a company’s culture, it can spell doom for that organization. Fortunately, personal accountability problems can be fixed!

Laying the Foundation for Personal Accountability

At any level in an organization—from the CEO to the receptionist—personal accountability starts with taking a good look in the mirror. If you want your employees to demonstrate personal accountability, then you need to be 100% accountable for your actions—and for your results (both the successes and the failures). If you don’t demonstrate a high degree of personal accountability, don’t expect it from your employees.

Once you’re committed to demanding personal accountability from yourself, now it’s time to focus on your department or organization. To create an environment that fosters personal accountability, implement a three-step process for setting clear and concise expectations for your employees:

  1. Establish a direct connection between employee goals and company goals. You’ll get more “buy in” from employees who feel that they’re actually helping the company succeed rather than functioning as mere cogs in a wheel.
  2. You can’t ask for accountability without detailing what you expect from your employees. So use the S.M.A.R.T. approach to make sure your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
  3. Don’t just hand employees a list of goals. Instead, define the results you expect, then let your employees determine how to reach those goals—thus increasing their motivation and sense of responsibility.

Engagement Is Key to Personal Accountability

Engagement is KeyOnce you’ve laid the foundation, it’s time to nurture personal accountability so it becomes a core aspect of your company culture. One of the best ways to accomplish that is to increase employee engagement, the emotional connection employees have to their organizations. Highly engaged employees believe in what they’re doing, feel a sense of ownership, and will deliver more than what’s required in their roles.

In an article published on the Bloomberg Businessweek website, one expert on employee recognition describes the results of studies showing how employee engagement can affect profit: “[C]ompanies with engaged employees boosted operating income by 19% compared to companies with the lowest percentage of engaged employees, which saw operating income fall 33%.” Clearly, the value of high employee engagement should not be underestimated!

Employees are usually engaged when they’re starting at a new organization. That enthusiasm often wanes with time, though, and companies face the challenge of maintaining engagement throughout an employee’s career if they want to foster high levels of personal accountability. To achieve these aims, managers must understand the following:

  • Employees want to feel that they are part of the bigger picture.
  • If they feel connected to the company’s future growth, employees will be more motivated and make better decisions because they believe that their actions matter.
  • Employees are more engaged to reach their goals if they help establish them and aren’t just handed a list of items to execute.
  • Managers can engage employees by effectively delegating responsibilities, then coaching them to succeed.

What to Do—and What Not to Do

The causal relationship is clear: empowering employees makes them more engaged, engaged employees exhibit more personal accountability, and widespread personal accountability can greatly increase a company’s chance to succeed. So how do you get from point A to point B?

Once you’ve established clear and concise expectations, examine your management style for anything that might stifle (or even derail!) the development of personal accountability among your employees. Be sure to:

  • delegate effectively;
  • avoid micromanaging your employees (instead, empower them by articulating a goal then cutting them loose to figure out how to accomplish it);
  • provide feedback on past performance and coaching on future action as needed;
  • recognize and reward behavior that exhibits personal accountability;
  • encourage employees to achieve outstanding results and push themselves to think outside the box (and well beyond their comfort zones); and
  • respond positively and enthusiastically when employees do achieve their goals (and don’t kill them when they fall short—instead, coach them on how to apply the lessons they learned to the next project).

As you guide your organization, don’t even think about taking shortcuts. If you find yourself giving orders and demanding action, saying “I know how to do this—and you don’t,” or solving problems yourself instead of coaching employees on how to solve them, it’s time to take a deep breath, relax your grip on the reins, and trust your staff to make their own choices about how to get their jobs done. Otherwise, your micromanaging behavior and poor management skills will defeat your efforts to instill personal accountability in your staff.

As former President John F. Kennedy said “leadership and learning are indispensable to one another.” So take a close look at your management style and see how it aligns with the tips mentioned above. If your employees think you’re not effectively employing each and every strategy, then it’s time to step up your personal accountability: own the problem—and then fix it. Remember: if you want personal accountability from your employees, you need to walk the walk yourself.


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