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What is personal accountability, and why does it matter in the workplace?

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

October 19, 2022

Most of us have a general idea of what personal responsibility means. It’s when you’re expected to do something because it’s part of your job. Usually, it’s official — meaning your specific responsibilities are listed in your contract. If you fulfill them, you’re satisfying the basic requirements of the job. If you neglect them, it’s perfectly fair grounds for dismissal. But what does personal accountability mean? And how is it different from responsibility? Let’s take a closer look…

What is personal accountability?

Personal accountability is when you own your actions and their results, both positive and negative. It involves taking responsibility for your performance without passing the buck, rather than assuming your input doesn’t make much difference and letting others carry you along (a.k.a. ‘social loafing’). 

When you’re accountable, you’re more likely to do the following:

  • Follow through on your commitments
  • Achieve your goals
  • Take responsibility for your mistakes
  • Learn from your failures
  • Persevere in the face of setbacks

What does accountability look like?

Accountability takes various forms. It can be an internal motivator, meaning you’re driven to do something because you want to meet your own standards. It can also be external, where you’re held accountable by your manager, a team member, a friend, or even a family member.

Accountability can also be proactive or reactive. Proactive accountability is when you take responsibility for your own actions, even before anyone asks you to. Reactive accountability is when you only take responsibility after someone else points out your mistake.

As you’ve probably worked out, the former is the better option, but that doesn’t mean being reactive is a bad thing. We all have blind spots, and, sometimes, it takes someone else to point them out. As long as they offer constructive feedback, getting input from someone else is an entirely good thing. Don’t beat yourself up! 

Why is personal accountability important?

Why is it such a big deal? Well, for one, it can improve your job satisfaction. When you’re engaged, you know you’re doing your best and meeting your commitments. In other words, it’s easier to feel good about your work. You aren’t coasting along and feeling bored; you care about coming in each day and working on something that matters to you. 

Personal accountability can also boost your career prospects within your organization. Because you’re more likely to achieve your goals and follow through on your commitments, you’ll stand out from your less accountable peers, and managers may see you as someone they can trust and rely on. Promotions and other opportunities may well soon follow! 

Finally, personal accountability can improve the quality of your work. When you’re accountable, you’re more likely to catch your own mistakes and learn from them. This can help you avoid making the same mistakes in the future and produce better work overall.

What happens if you don’t have personal accountability?

If you aren’t holding yourself accountable, you’re more likely to make excuses for your mistakes. This can damage your credibility and make it difficult for others to trust you. Not to mention, avoiding problems and waiting for others solve everything can become a bad habit that prevents growth.

You might also find it harder to achieve your goals. Without personal accountability, it’s easy to procrastinate or put off important tasks. The end result? Missed deadlines and a general feeling of overwhelm. 

Finally, not being accountable can damage your work relationships. When you don’t take responsibility for your actions, you tend to point the finger at others or cause them to suffer unnecessary consequences. This leads to conflict and resentment. No one likes to be blamed, and no one likes that person who coasts along and takes credit for the hard work of others. So, don’t be that person! 

How to promote personal accountability at work

There are a few key strategies you can use to promote personal accountability at work. 

1. Set clear expectations

When employees know what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to feel accountable for their actions. Be clear about deadlines, deliverables, and standards. Above all, make it crystal clear who owns each task.

  • Define expectations: clarify what you need to do and to what standard.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities: who is going to do each task?
  • Set deadlines: when does each task need to be completed?
  • Communicate expectations: make sure everyone knows what they need to do and why it’s important. Brush up on your organizational communication skills to get the message across as best you can. 
  • Follow up and provide feedback: check in regularly to see how people are progressing, and give feedback — both positive and constructive — to help them improve.

2. Encourage transparency and communication

Open communication is the key to promoting personal accountability. If employees feel like they can’t speak up or raise concerns, they’re less likely to take responsibility for their own performance. Encourage employees to share their ideas, ask questions, and give feedback. It’ll help everyone stay on track. 

Here are three ways to encourage transparency in the workplace.

  • Make openness and honesty part of your team culture. When employees can share openly, they’re more likely to be transparent with their actions. Encourage people to be honest with each other and speak up if they have any concerns. Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes or point out issues without negative repercussions. If you’re a manager, lead by example. No one’s perfect, not even managers. So, show your team that, and they’ll feel less self-conscious about sharing their own slip-ups. 
  • Make communication easy. Communication is essential for promoting transparency in the workplace. Encourage employees to share information openly and candidly, both within their team and with other teams.  In this day and age, there’s no excuse for only supplying email. Companies should embrace a range of collaboration tools, from email and phone to chat apps, videoconferencing, and beyond. The more flexible you can be, the easier it is for everyone to communicate in a way that works for them.
  • Implement systems that support transparency. Technology plays a big role in promoting transparency in the workplace. Online project management software can help employees track the progress of projects and identify potential bottlenecks or problems. This reduces the need for face-to-face communication while making it easier for employees and stakeholders to stay informed about what’s going on. Read our guide to work culture for remote teams for more tips.

3. Encourage a growth mindset

A fixed mindset is when someone believes their talents and abilities are set in stone. A growth mindset is when someone believes they can improve with effort and practice. Encouraging a growth mindset in the workplace can help employees become more accountable for their own actions. Here’s how to encourage a growth mindset: 

Encourage employees to set goals

When employees have something to strive for, they’re more likely to take responsibility for their own actions. Encourage employees to set personal and professional goals, and help them develop a plan to achieve those goals.

  • Top tip: setting SMART goals will come in handy here. This will help them focus on their own development.

Promote learning and development

Learning and development opportunities can help employees adopt a growth mindset. Encourage employees to participate in training programs, workshops, and seminars. Ideally, this will be paid and during work hours; it isn’t reasonable to expect people to give up their free time. Development opportunities will help employees gain new skills and see the value in lifelong learning. It’ll also help them feel valued in their role. 

Recognize and reward progress

Celebrate your team’s wins, and reward great performance. This will show them their efforts are noticed and appreciated, and it encourages everyone to continue striving for excellence. 

Model the behavior you want to see

Managers are leaders in terms of effort, work ethic, and culture. If you’re slacking or not taking your job seriously, your employees will follow suit. As a leader, you have the ability to set the tone for the workplace. So, if you want employees to be accountable for their actions, take responsibility for yours (including the mistakes), and encourage others to do the same.

Welcome feedback

Encourage employees to give and receive feedback on a regular basis. Make sure it’s constructive and positive, with the goal of helping team members improve their performance.

4. Use an accountability framework

Organizations have heaps of frameworks to choose from when it comes to promoting personal accountability in the workplace. The framework you use will depend on your organization’s specific needs and goals, but the RACI matrix is the gold standard.

A RACI framework template made in Cacoo

RACI is an acronym that stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. 

Alongside promoting a culture of accountability, it helps to keep stakeholders in the loop at key stages of the project. By making sure the right people stay informed, teams can address all questions, concerns, and suggestions and come to a consensus before making further progress. This saves time and resources and prevents backtracking. 

5. Use the right tools for the job

If you want employees to feel accountable for their work, make sure they have the resources they need to do their job properly. Do they have the right training? Collaboration tools? Information and support? If employees have inadequate resources, it isn’t fair to expect them to be accountable for their progress and achievements.

Project management software can help you promote personal accountability at work by giving employees visibility into their tasks and responsibilities. With a clear overview of tasks and deadlines, employees can better prioritize their time and efforts. In addition, project management software can help managers track employee progress and identify potential problem areas.

6. Make accountability more rewarding

We all know the carrot is nicer than the stick, right? So, offer the metaphorical carrot where possible. 

While personal accountability should be the norm, you can also make it more rewarding for employees who go above and beyond. Recognize and celebrate employees who take ownership of their work and take responsibility for their actions. This will further reinforce a culture of accountability and encourage others to follow suit.

7. Hold coworkers accountable (in a respectful way)

Accountability doesn’t have to be a dirty word. When done respectfully, holding co-workers accountable can actually help to improve work relationships and build trust. If you’re concerned about someone’s behavior or performance, have a conversation with them in private. Avoid public shaming, and focus on finding a solution that works for both of you.

And remember: follow through!

If you’re going to hold someone accountable, you need to follow through on the points you raised (including rewards or punishments). If you don’t, employees will quickly learn that they can get away with not meeting your expectations. This will undermine your authority and make it difficult to hold anyone accountable in the future.

If an employee isn’t meeting your expectations, it’s important to follow through in a constructive way. Help the employee identify areas where they need to improve, and develop a plan to help them get back on track.

How do you show accountability at work? Quick tips for everyday life

OK, so we’ve given you some long-term strategies, but how do you model this behavior in day-to-day life? Here are a few little things you can do to demonstrate personal accountability.

Be punctual

If you’re late for work, it sets the tone for the rest of the day. Showing up on time shows that you’re responsible and dependable. It’s also a sign of respect for your coworkers and your employer.

Dress the part

Dressing for success shows that you’re taking your job seriously. It also sends the message that you’re professional and capable. Choose clothing that is appropriate for your workplace, and keep your appearance neat and clean.

Be a team player

Working as part of a team requires cooperation and communication. Showing that you have a team mindset (rather than an individualistic one) demonstrates your ability to work well with others. It also shows that you’re willing to put the needs of the team above your own.

Take initiative

Taking initiative shows that you’re proactive and willing to take on new challenges. It’s a sign of leadership and responsibility. 

Follow through

Following through on your commitments shows that you’re reliable and trustworthy. It’s important to do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. 

Be mindful of social loafing

Don’t assume someone else will pick up the slack. Social loafing is when people put in the minimum effort and do less work because they assume others will do it. This creates a culture of entitlement and can lead to a decline in performance. So, be mindful of social loafing, and help create a culture of accountability in the workplace.

Say sorry if you mess up

We all make mistakes, but it’s important to own up to them. Saying sorry shows that you’re accountable for your actions and willing to take responsibility for your mistakes. It’s also a sign of respect for the people you’ve affected.

Be positive

A positive attitude is contagious. When you’re positive, it sets the tone for the rest of the team. Not to mention, people are more likely to be productive and cooperative when the atmosphere is positive. By showing enthusiasm, you can help create a happy work environment.

Treat mistakes as an opportunity, rather than a threat

Personal accountability is about more than just taking responsibility for your own actions; it’s also about learning from your mistakes and improving your performance over time. As we mentioned before, a culture that allows for openness and honesty lays the foundations for these kinds of conversations. And part of this involves encouraging employees to learn from their mistakes and seek out opportunities for personal development. This will help them become more accountable for their own actions and strengthen their long-term performance.

Track your progress (and encourage others to do the same) 

These days, project management tools can take over some of the heavy lifting when it comes to tracking work. If your organization has PM tools, make sure you use them! Log progress, add comments, enable automatic notifications, and share work. The more open and collaborative you are, the more you can hold yourself and your team accountable. And that’s a good thing.

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