One of the things that leaders often complain about is a lack of accountability in the workplace. In other words, people don’t take ownership of problems or take responsibility for mistakes.
Accountability is important for leaders and teams to be effective. Obviously leaders are accountable for the results of their teams, but that’s not the end of it.
Team members also need to take accountability and ownership for their own work. This might include aspects like quality or delivering the work on time.
Why Leaders Need Accountability in the Workplace
Even if you’re the boss, you don’t want to be the one accountable for absolutely everything. Imagine if the CEO of a company was accountable for every single aspect of its operation.
In practice, the CEO delegates accountability for key functions to other people. The CEO needs her people to take ownership of their functions so they run smoothly.
Once this is in place, then the CEO simply needs the right amount of oversight to hold her people accountable for the performance of these functions.
The same is true in your team. You can’t own all the work for your people. You need team members to own their work and feel accountable for doing it well.
If your team members take accountability and ownership of their work, they’ll take pride in seeing it done properly. This reduces the need for you to worry about the small details, so you can focus on the bigger picture.
How Leaders Damage Accountability in the Workplace
Unfortunately, there are some actions that leaders take which reduces accountability in the workplace. When leaders do these things, you’ll see team members taking less ownership and responsibility.
This will inevitably place more pressure on the leaders who need to manage the work. When team members aren’t taking ownership, it all moves up a level – to the boss.
While leaders need to take accountability for overall performance, it’s not useful to be accountable for every minor detail of the work at the same time.
Let’s look at some of the actions that damage accountability in the workplace (and stop doing them).
1. Not Giving Their People the Spotlight
If you want accountability in the workplace, then you’ve got to stop going to the same meetings or forums that your team could be attending by themselves. You need to put the spotlight on your team members sometimes, so they feel the accountability.
For example, if multiple people within the same reporting line are together in a meeting, most of the time people will defer to the person who is the most senior in the hierarchy (you).
This means that your team member doesn’t need to take ownership. They can simply wait for you to give your opinion which carries more authority.
A Simple Example of Karen and the Report
Let’s look at a simple example.
Karen works in your team, and is responsible for putting together a report that take inputs from several different teams. She collates the information, makes sure it’s all correct and works with the other teams to put it together.
A meeting is convened to discuss the content of the report. Different managers turn up, and you’re invited so you do too.
Karen is the one doing the work, but all of a sudden, other managers are asking you questions about the report in the meeting.
Karen is the one who knows the most, but she defers to you because you’re the boss.
What has happened here is that you’ve unwittingly taken Karen “off the hook”. All the managers look for your opinion instead of Karen’s. You’ve damaged accountability because Karen knows you are the person who can do all the talking.
In these situations, sometimes it’s good to let your team members run the show. You can get an update later, but you don’t need to be in the meeting.
When you’re not there, Karen will have nobody to rely on, and she’ll take ownership because she knows it’s all up to her.
2. Being the Main Contact Point for Everything
We want to make sure our team members take ownership. A good way to do that is to delegate accountability for parts of your team’s work.
Some managers like to be the main contact point for everything in their team. I find this often wastes a lot of time, because you tend to become a communication bottleneck.
However, some managers often have trouble letting go and want to be “across” everything. This will once again damage accountability in the workplace over time.
Let your team members be the point of contact for your team for their particular domain. Tell your stakeholders to talk to them, not to you.
This increases ownership within your team, because you don’t need to be involved all the time.
3. Reviewing Every Single Piece of Work In Your Team
You’re probably seeing a common theme here. You can increase accountability by removing yourself as the central point for everything in your team.
The more involved you are in everything your team does, the less your team members will need to own their work. They know you’ll be there to pick up the pieces and make sure everything is OK.
If you review every piece of work in your team before it goes out to stakeholders, you’re reducing accountability.
Your team members know that you will be the “last line of defence”, picking up any errors.
But do you know what this does? It means your team will put in less effort, because they know you’ll be there to save the day if there is a problem.
So instead, try taking a step back. Say “I trust you to make sure it’s good to go”.
When your team member realises you’re not going to do the final checking, they might just step up their effort to make sure it’s right. Because now they know if something is wrong, it’s on them.
And when you show you believe in your team, they start to believe in themselves.
4. Waiting For Your People to Step Up
Many leaders want to be leading a team of unicorns. Go-getters, who step up and take on accountability all by themselves.
The truth is, these people aren’t all that common. Sometimes, your team members will need a little help to take ownership for themselves.
Many people defer to leaders and will wait to be asked, rather than putting themselves forward. This doesn’t mean they are bad team members, it’s just that everyone is different, and we can’t treat everybody the same way.
Sometimes, people respect our leadership too much. They will defer to our authority and position us as the go-to person. This only reduces accountability in the workplace and in your team.
Instead of waiting people to step up and take on more responsibility, ask them directly. Say something like “I’d like you to take ownership of this work”. Explain what this means for them in practical terms.
Then step back and let them go. Organise regular check-ins so you can maintain oversight, assess progress and provide support. Giving someone accountability doesn’t mean they need to do it all alone.
You might think your team aren’t up to the job. But have you asked them to take ownership? Or just assumed they would?
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Don’t Be Afraid of Delegating Accountability In Your Team
You might feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of stepping back and letting your team step up.
It’s only natural to feel a little insecure. After all, if you step back and your team can do the work, then what will you do?
Well, you’ll do what leaders are supposed to do.
You’ll provide the direction, think more strategically, focus on improving the team and spend time supporting and coaching your people.
Have you been frustrated by a lack of accountability in the workplace? Let us know your stories in the comments below!