The 4 Secrets to Building Accountability in the Workplace


To unlock the secrets of workplace accountability, you must first understand what accountability is. The word accountability comes from the notion that when someone is responsible for a thing, they must give an account for the success or failure of the thing they are responsible – or accountable – for. This means that someone who is accountable for a thing must know what that thing is and why they are accountable for it. They must also be given sufficient power to influence the thing they are accountable for and they must be granted opportunities for account-giving. These four things are the four secrets of building accountability in the workplace. As we elaborate, you’ll see the ways in which you can empower stakeholders to take accountability.

Describe What Staff Are Accountable For

One of the biggest barriers to accountability is not knowing what your goals are. Your organization should have big, aspirational goals – goals that everyone feels that they can work on together. These goals should be ambitious; if they’re too easy to obtain, they won’t motivate people to try harder. When goals aren’t attained, it shouldn’t be seen as a failure; rather, you should use that information to adjust your goals for the next quarter or the next year. The broad goals you’re trying to achieve – be they an increase in overall sales, a decrease in cancellations, or any other number of things – should be public. That way, everyone knows exactly what they are striving towards. Google has an excellent piece on Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) that you can use to drive your goal setting.

Now that your staff know what your grand objectives are, you can divide those objectives into smaller, more manageable pieces so each team understands how they can contribute to the overall goal. For example, an insurance company might decide they want to sell $X policies, then divide that number among their auto, home, travel, business, and other teams, based on how those teams have performed in previous years. KPIs can help guide your goals, but they should not be confused with the goals themselves.

Let Your Team Know Why They’re Accountable

Once you have your OKRs set, it’s all about dividing and subdividing them so each team and each team member has a goal. By subdividing the overall goal, it’s clear to team members how their particular role serves to help the company reach its overall goal.

People want to work; the idea that we’re all just in it for the money is an illusion. People want to feel like they’re contributing to something greater, that the work that they do has meaning, and that without them, the company would be worse off. When someone understands what they’re accountable for, it becomes obvious why they’re accountable for it – without them, it wouldn’t get done and the team would suffer. When someone doesn’t understand why they’re accountable for something, it could damage their productivity or it could be a sign that the goals you’ve set don’t reflect the work they’re doing. Take time to have a conversation with them about their goals, how they contribute to the company’s overall goals, and what they can do to attain those goals.

Empower Your Staff To Achieve Their Goals

One of the biggest barriers to accountability is a sense of powerlessness. When you’re held accountable for a goal that you don’t feel you could have influenced, there’s a deep sense of unfairness. In order to mitigate this, you need to ensure that each team member has the power and tools they need to reach their goals.

Finding the right tools for your business can be tricky, especially if the business is rather large. There can be a chain of communication that sometimes feels like a game of telephone: managers reporting to managers reporting to you. That can make it difficult to know if any individual team member is struggling to achieve their goal due to a lack of agency. You can help avoid this problem by having an open door policy, regular meetings with staff members, and other open lines of communication. Ask staff members if they feel there’s anything missing in their toolbelt; if a lot of people feel they don’t have enough power to do what they’re responsible for, it may be time to re-evaluate some of your methods.

Accounts Given, Accounts Taken

Account-giving and accountability are intimately tied and they’re inextricably linked with the lines of communication we just discussed. You need to have regular meetings about the goals you’ve set. Should adjustments be made? What’s working? What isn’t? When big steps have been taken to reach a goal and the company is experiencing success, celebration is in order. Accountability is so often viewed through a negative lens, but when you’re the one who gets to give a good account – an account of all the things that went right, all the hard work that paid off – you should be praised.

On the flipside, when things aren’t going so well, it’s important that staff give you an accurate account of what happened. That’s unlikely to occur if they feel not meeting a goal is failure and that failure means punishment. Instead, not meeting a goal should be seen as a learning experience and the reward for the experience should be adjustments that give staff the tools they need to meet goals next time.

When it comes to giving and taking accounts, the c-suite of the company are ultimately responsible; if you’re the CEO, the accountability stops with you. When staff feel like executives aren’t accountable for their actions and goal-setting, they’ll feel like they don’t need to be accountable either. Remember that a culture of accountability starts at the top. When the company isn’t succeeding, you have to take responsibility for your mistakes publically, so that your employees feel they can trust you to be honest. In the same vein, join in the celebrations when you’ve had success.