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What Do “Accountable” Employees Do Differently?


Accountability. It’s key to achieving business results. And yet a Workplace Accountability Study by Partners in Leadership revealed that 82% of respondents have no ability to hold others accountable, and 91% of people rank accountability as one of the top development needs they’d like to see at their organization.

In this article, we list what accountable employees do differently and how to create a culture of accountability in your organization.

Accountable employees view the appraisal process as fair

A study by Harvard Business Review found that when accountability systems are seen as unjust, people are almost four times more likely to withhold or distort information. In other words, employees are more likely to embellish accomplishments and be less inclined to admit underperformance. When accountability systems are fair, employees are more likely to be honest (especially about their mistakes) and own their performance. Equitable performance management is key to creating a culture of accountability.

Accountable employees embrace feedback

When employees feel like their boss is invested in their success, they are more likely to ask for feedback to improve their performance. There is a plethora of research to support the importance of feedback in increasing overall employee engagement and productivity. For example, a study by OfficeVibe found that 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week as opposed to 18% of low engaged employees.

Accountable employees understand their objectives

Part of being able to take ownership of objectives/projects and drive it to completion is clearly understanding what needs to be done and how to get it done. Accountable employees understand their objectives. They also understand how their individual objectives contribute to overall team/organizational objectives and success.

Establishing a culture of accountability

As accountability is top-of-mind for many leaders, how can organizations actually create a culture of accountability? We outline 3 ways below:

1) Walk the talk

There are two sides to the accountability coin: 1) taking accountability yourself and 2) holding other people accountable. If you expect employees to truly take ownership, leaders better be role modelling this behavior. They need to hold themselves accountable, and they must also hold others on the team accountable. Organizational blame games or pointing fingers will wreck havoc on company culture. It can also lead to employees looking for their next job.

2) Focus on fairness by having regular check-ins

Harvard Business Review found that accountability systems that were viewed as fair had standardized processes where employees both give and receive regular feedback. Feedback clarifies expectations, develops employees’ skills, motivates employees, and helps build strong workplace relationships.

Some things to keep in mind during check-ins:

Provide meaningful, actionable feedback: Actionable feedback is tangible to employees – they can repeat, correct, or change behaviors. Switch out the “high fives” and “great jobs” for more effective feedback that is geared toward improving their performance. (Quality feedback also helps establish great feedback culture in your culture).

Document feedback: Documenting feedback can help reduce some unconscious biases such as recency bias and spillover bias from creeping up into check-ins. For managers with multiple direct reports, documenting feedback allows them to keep track of the number of feedback given to each of their employees. If one direct report is getting more feedback than another, managers should increase the frequency of feedback conversations with the rest of the team.

Ask questions: Creating accountable employees who own up to their performance assumes a great amount of trust between the employee and manager/teams. While providing honest feedback helps deepen trust, asking meaningful questions is also an important element to building good work relationships. When managers take a genuine interest in understanding their employees, employees will be less guarded to hide their underperformance. Managers should use check-ins to understand how employees are wired: what motivates them, what demotivates them, the skills they want to improve, and the type of support they need. This is how trust can be built.

Reconsider ratings: Let check-ins focus on the feedback, not ratings. Many leaders treat accountability as no more than a scorekeeping system. This leads to unconscious biases, such as negativity bias where leaders are trying to find shortcomings. Employees should focus on what they can change, correct, or repeat in order to be successful. Assigning a numerical number will not motivate employees.

Check out our previous article on performance ratings for more details.

3) Set clear and measurable goals & involve employees from start – to – finish

Holding people accountable for completing objectives and delivering results starts with being explicit about the objectives. When setting objectives, managers need to make make sure they are as S.M.A.R.T. as possible.

  • Specific: clear and concise
  • Measurable: quantifiable (quantity, time, or cost)
  • Achievable: challenging yet attainable
  • Relevant: appropriate given job responsibilities
  • Time-bound: include milestones and target completion date

Moreover, employees should be involved in the process. Gallup research finds that employees whose managers involve them in a goal setting are 3.6 times more likely than other employees to be engaged (“write your own lottery” mindset). Yet, less than a third of employees strongly agree that their managers involve them in goal setting.

Involving employees in goal setting and giving them autonomy to choose the ‘how’ (how they can achieve the task) helps instil ownership of the results.


Companies have been struggling to get their employees to ‘own’ their performance for a long time. With regular check-ins and clear goals, employees can begin to take ownership of their performance.

How do you help instil a culture of accountability?

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