How to Improve Accountability in the Workplace

How to Improve Accountability in the Workplace

Promoting accountability in the workplace has never been more vital to an organization’s success. With so many people working remotely on either a full- or part-time basis—and with many companies relying on freelancers to fill vital roles—employee accountability is more than just a buzzword. Workplace accountability can be the key to your company’s ability to thrive and grow.

According to Merriam-Webster, accountability is manifested by “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Accountable team members take personal responsibility for their workplace behavior, and an accountable organization accepts responsibility for how it treats its workers.

It can be a challenge to develop a culture that holds everyone in the organization—from its executive team to its freelancers—accountable for working in common cause to meet the company’s goals.

If you’re a manager looking to infuse your workforce with greater accountability, or if you’re a team member interested in how you can increase your own productivity through accountability, this article is for you. It covers:

3 Symptoms of low accountability

Accountability is important to any company’s culture. But before you go off all hog wild trying to address it as an issue, take a step back and see what, if any, issues you have. That way you can develop a plan to move forward.

Low accountability is easily seen in three key performance measures: poor performance, decreased output, and low team morale.

  • Poor performance. If workers are consistently missing deadlines, covering up mistakes, or seem unclear about or uninterested in how their work impacts their team and the company, you’ve got a systemic accountability problem.
  • Decreased output. If you suspect your organization or team lacks enough accountability, check your metrics. Is your team failing to meet deadlines? Is revenue either down or failing to meet projections? If so, your people may not be working in concert, taking personal responsibility for their performance, or being held to the standards needed to keep the work on track.
  • Low team morale. Excessive absenteeism, poor punctuality, uncooperative attitudes, falling employee performance, and lack of enthusiasm are all signs of low work environment morale. When people aren’t invited to bring their best selves to work, they won’t.

If you’re experiencing these issues among your workforce, take a look at your standards and procedures. Are there places where your management skills need a tune-up? Chances are high that low team morale is a direct result of a lack of clear standards and expectations backed up by rewards and consequences.

How to improve accountability

Recognizing that you have an accountability problem is the first stage in setting things right. The second stage—improving accountability—can be accomplished with these four steps:

  1. Set achievable goals for your team
  2. Consider constructive feedback
  3. Make accountability a habit
  4. Establish a culture of trust

1. Set achievable goals for your team

Accountability begins with understanding expectations and knowing that you’re able to achieve them within the parameters provided.

To foster accountability in team members, make sure you set clear expectations so each person knows what you require of them and when. Set your team up for success by engaging in realistic goal setting, making sure the deliverables are achievable and that each person who shows up to work has access to the tools they need to meet expectations.

Consider engaging in capacity planning, especially when dealing with remote teams. This can help you set reasonable expectations when it comes to timelines and worker bandwidth.

2. Consider constructive feedback

Regardless of whether you’re a C-level executive or a freelancer on a temporary assignment, you can’t be held accountable—or hold anyone else accountable—if you are working in a vacuum. Accountability is a team sport.

Everyone on the team needs to be willing to give and receive both positive feedback and constructive feedback. If you’re a team leader, create an environment that encourages teamwork, where each person can voice their concerns and ask for support. Let them know that accountability is a two-way street.

But be careful not to engage in micromanaging your team members. People perform best when they’re given the opportunity to self-correct. Offer guidance with regular follow-ups if necessary.

3. Make accountability a habit

Work on making team accountability part of your team’s DNA. Bring it up, leverage it, and emphasize it during team meetings, one-on-one interactions, and regular review sessions. Try one or more of these tips to make accountability a habit in your organization:

  • Put assignments and deadlines in writing.
  • Set up accountability sessions where the whole team shares goals with one another and asks for support in staying on track.
  • Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins with staff to gauge progress and address issues early.
  • Let your team know you’re accountable to them and encourage them to come to you if they’re not getting the support they need.
  • Keep members of your remote workforce top of mind in all your accountability-building efforts, and recognize that you may have to expend more effort to communicate expectations and accountability frameworks with them.  

4. Establish a culture of trust

Trust is a top-down phenomenon. Be clear about expectations, keep all promises, and stay consistent in how management dishes out rewards and corrects mistakes. Nothing crushes a culture of accountability like unpredictability, favoritism, and a lack of clear direction.

For a workplace culture of trust to exist, management must foster an understanding of accountability and promote employee engagement by rewarding transparency and honesty. When someone admits to struggling, offer them encouragement, assistance, and constructive feedback.

Leaders also shouldn’t be afraid to model personal accountability by showing their own vulnerabilities and being open and honest about their own failures, doubts, and shortcomings.

Why workplaces need accountability

When workers feel a sense of accountability to their employers and fellow team members, everybody wins. With accountability, everyone in the organization becomes a better performer, is happier at work, trusts others more, contributes to a better company culture, and is more productive.

1. To increase performance

When workers are held accountable for meeting deliverables, they perform better. People do their best work when they know what’s expected of them. Challenging workers to undertake certain activities, adopt quality standards, and meet deadlines eliminates confusion about who’s responsible for what tasks or deliverables.

Workers who feel accountable pay attention. They notice if a project is moving along as planned or if the workflow has become stalled. When things are moving along well, team members who feel a sense of accountability are empowered to do their best, as they’re rewarded for their contributions.

On the other hand, when things go off track, workers with a sense of accountability are more likely to seek help from supervisors, confident that their transparency will reap future rewards as they get back on track.

An accountable worker’s heightened attention to detail means matters are less likely to fall through the cracks. This contributes to an increase in overall performance, as people take ownership of not only their personal piece of a project but also team results as a whole.

2. To boost morale

Accountability is a two-way street. When leaders demonstrate accountability to their direct reports by communicating expectations and then providing specific tools, training, and systems needed to meet those expectations, workers will respond. Knowing what’s expected and then reaping rewards for meeting or exceeding those expectations fosters a sense of pride in the work and in the organization as a whole.

3. To build trust

If your organization holds everyone equally accountable for fulfilling their job functions, it builds a foundation of trust throughout the company. People working in environments that promote accountability gain a sense of psychological safety, meaning they can count on their colleagues to pull their weight and produce deliverables on time and on budget.

They trust that if someone needs help, they’ll ask for it. And they trust that their managers are being held to the same standards they are.

Toxic behaviors like covering tracks, pointing fingers, and hiding mistakes are less of an issue when workers trust each other and the organization. As long as everyone is held to the same standards and policies are made clear, workers are likely to put their trust in management and in each other.

4. To improve company culture

Accountability can go a long way toward improving a company’s culture. Accountability is based on responsibility, integrity, honesty, and a willingness to engage in continuous improvement. These are the same elements that form a strong and positive company culture.

5. To get things done

When people take ownership of their activities and behavior, are provided with the tools they need to accomplish the tasks at hand, and aren’t afraid to engage in creative problem-solving, things get done. Accountability is all about empowering people and the organizations they work for to succeed.

Keep accountability in mind

An organization that encourages its workforce to make a habit of being accountable is setting itself up for success. Sometimes, however, companies need top-notch talent ready to jump in on a project and integrate seamlessly into their culture of accountability.

Fortunately, Upwork can help. We make it easy to hire the right freelancers to fit not only your professional needs but also your company culture of accountability. And if you’re an independent professional, our platform allows you to explore freelance jobs with clients that match your needs, like keeping everyone accountable.


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How to Improve Accountability in the Workplace
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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