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Accountability in the Workplace

One of the early lessons parents try to teach their children is cause and effect. "When the door is left open," they tell their children, "the cat will get out. And perhaps, bears will come in and eat all the cereal." Later, when the parents find the door open, the cat has scampered off to join the circus, and all the cereal is gone, the child will shriek and throw a tantrum at the lack of cereal. The wise parent will wait out the tantrum and then ask the child about how the door got open. Eventually, the child will admit to leaving the door open.

Every action leads to some manner of reaction. Every effect stems from some primary cause. Accountability is how we measure and chart how we got here from over there, and if we can't fathom the chain of actions and reactions that brought us here, then we can't a) replicate this chain, if it turned out to be a good thing, and b) avoid it, if it turned out to be a terrible mistake. In children, we insist they learn how accountability works; yet in adults, we stop requiring this level of honesty. This becomes tricky when you're trying to run a business.

How Growth Happens

For many years, "accountability" in business was akin to wearing a sign that said "I'm the one you fire when things go poorly," and no one was eager to wear that sign. The resulting business climate was one in which employees worked harder at disguising their input in a business process than at implementing business plans and learning from the resulting data set. Companies became mired in an endless refusal to acknowledge setbacks, failures and other natural aspects of the business cycle, and this denial led to numerous companies foundering or being taken over by upstart challengers who learned from their failures and missteps.

Failure happens. Mistakes occur. What compounds these instances is attempting to disguise and disregard both the unexpected outcome and the chain of actions that led to the undesired end. Learning is, after all, a matter of applying an idea to action, investigating the outcome, and either attempting it again or moving on to something else. Business is nothing more than a continual process of learning how to optimize a production pipeline, efficiently deliver a product to a customer base, and build customer awareness in multiple markets. If all of these aspects of running a business were codified in a simple, infallible ten step outline, then there would be no room for new businesses and new ideas.

An Honest Policy

Accountability in business involves insisting that management be clear in their directives to the employees. It empowers employees to be vocal and open about the struggles and obstacles they face as they attempt to follow the directives from management. Accountability means that mistakes can be caught early, so decisions based on bad data and misaligned procedures can be corrected before they have a deleterious effect upon a business's bottom line.

But how do you instill a desire for accountability within your organization? You begin with humility. You begin by acknowledging that the future is uncertain, but that management has a plan which they are reasonably confident will succeed. You invite the employees to engage with this plan. You ask them for input and insight. You promote an environment where people are welcome to speak their mind, and you listen to what they have to say.

There will be failures. There will be setbacks. But the business cannot be derailed by such incidents. It must continue. It must correct its course and find a way to recover from the misstep. Course correction comes from analysis of what went wrong, and that analysis should be broached with the same integrity as the introduction of the initial plan.

Moving on From Wrong

Accountability within the organization is merely a matter of recognizing the errors and correcting them. To engage your employees in redirecting the business is to provide opportunities for ownership in success. You can use the failure as a way to modify and strengthen the business plan, and in doing so, you will allow employees to demonstrate an ability to shift, change and show value.

Accountability works both ways. Just as there will be someone who admits to leaving the door open and letting the cat out, there will be someone who brings the cat back and another who will offer to stand by the door and make sure it gets properly closed next time. If your business respects accountability in its employees, you'll discover that the individual who acknowledged leaving the door open is now the one who insists on making sure it is always closed. And they'll do that job proudly, because they know they are making sure the company doesn't falter again in that same way.

Learn more about the Baylor online MBA program.


SmartBrief: Getting Employees to Take Accountability

Harvard Business Review: What Ever Happened to Accountability?

Forbes: The '8 Great' Accountability Skills for Business Success

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