How To Create A Culture Of Accountability In The Workplace

Accountability is not merely a buzzword but a fundamental principle that drives performance and results. During my military career and as COO of a successful construction technology company, I witnessed firsthand the transformative power of a culture rooted in accountability.  

Too often, companies and leaders who desire to establish a culture of accountability are focused primarily on punitive accountability and not on the accountability that is transformative for an organization: personal accountability. Real accountability means that you are personally accountable for the success of the mission and the success of your teammates.

Punitive accountability focuses on individual poor performers, creating a culture where instead of looking for ways to support the individual in accomplishing our collective goals, the tendency becomes to point the finger and ostracize the team members who are not meeting the standard instead of supporting them, which is what they need.

Personal accountability puts the focus on the individual holding themselves accountable to accomplishing the organization’s goals and supporting their teammates. When someone on a team is struggling to keep up in a culture of personal accountability, their teammates move to support and aid them in route to accomplishing their collective goals.

So, how does a leader begin to create a culture of personal accountability, or how does a leader start to transform a culture of punitive accountability into a culture of personal accountability?

Here are several steps you should take to build and maintain a culture of real accountability within your organization.

1.    Extreme Ownership

The cornerstone of accountability is the concept of Extreme Ownership. As leaders or as members of a team, you must take complete responsibility for everything that happens under your command. This means owning not just the successes but also the failures and setbacks. When leaders exemplify Extreme Ownership, it sets the tone for the entire team. Everyone learns that taking accountability for their actions, decisions, and outcomes is not only a good thing for the mission and the team, but it is also a good thing for the individual taking ownership because it allows them more control over the situation and presents a path to resolving the issue.

Over time, taking ownership is also contagious. While it may be intimidating at first, when others witness members of their team begin to take ownership and witness the benefits to those teammates, they are highly likely to begin taking ownership themselves.

2. Keep things Simple and Communicate Clearly  

Ensuring every team member understands the mission is key to establishing a culture of personal accountability. When a team understands the plan and how they are to contribute to its success, they can take ownership of the plan and execute.

The key to ensuring every member of the team understands the plan is to make sure your plans are simple. The more complex a plan is, the higher the likelihood the team will not fully understand it and, therefore, will not have the information necessary to execute effectively.

With a simple plan, a member of the team can fully understand what needs to be done, and if a mistake is made, they are more likely to hold themselves accountable and take ownership of their mistake. When the plan is overly complex, it leads to confusion, lack of initiative from fear of making a mistake, and often results in finger-pointing when a mistake is made.

Effective communication is vital in fostering accountability. Leaders must ensure that their directives, expectations, and goals are communicated clearly and concisely. Ambiguity and complexity lead to confusion and mistakes. By articulating a simple plan and clearly establishing roles and responsibilities, you create a culture where your team understands what is expected of them and how they contribute to the mission.

3. Decentralized Command

A culture of accountability thrives when leadership is decentralized. This means empowering junior leaders and team members to make decisions and take ownership of their tasks. When everyone is given ownership for their piece of the puzzle, personal accountability is distributed across all levels of the organization. Decentralized Command encourages initiative, innovation, and a sense of ownership among all team members.

Key to establishing a culture of accountability and Decentralized Command is making sure everyone on the team understands a vital piece of information called “The Why.”  Put simply, “The Why” defines what the goal is, and what success looks like. When every member of the team understands the goal and understands what it looks like to successfully achieve the goal, they can be empowered to solve the everyday problems and challenges any team will experience in a way that aligns with the teams overall objectives.

4. Train for Accountability

Training is essential for many reasons, one of which is to instill a sense of personal accountability. By regularly engaging in scenario-based training, your team is challenged to think critically, make decisions, and take responsibility for their actions.

This not only builds their skills but also reinforces the expectation of personal accountability and initiative in real-world situations. Consistent training helps maintain a high standard of performance and readiness and helps bond a team together.

Training does not have to be elaborate, expensive, or time-consuming. In the SEAL Teams, some of the most effective training scenarios I have been involved in are critical thinking exercises. A leader establishes a realistic scenario and then has their team think through, outline, and defend their decision-making for solving the scenario. These exercises cost nothing and took 10-15 minutes to execute.

5. Recognize and Reward Accountability

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. Recognize and reward team members who consistently demonstrate personal accountability. This can be through formal awards, promotions, or even simple public acknowledgments. Celebrating accountable behavior reinforces its value and motivates others to follow suit.

6. Set the Example

Leaders must consistently model the behavior they expect from their team. This means showing up prepared, making decisions based on integrity, and openly taking ownership of mistakes.

When leaders lead by example, they create a standard that others are likely to follow. Your actions speak louder than words, and setting the right example is crucial in cultivating a culture of accountability. If the leader is unwilling to hold themselves personally accountable for the performance of their team, the team will follow suit, and instead of the culture you are trying to achieve, a culture of excuses, blaming others, and finger-pointing will result.

Trust is the bedrock of any accountable culture. By setting the example for personal accountability, leaders earn the trust of their teams through their consistent, transparent actions. When team members trust their leaders and each other, they are more likely to take ownership of their responsibilities. Trust fosters an environment where people feel safe to be accountable, knowing they have the support of their leaders and their team.

7. Have a Culture of Debriefing

If you truly want a culture of personal accountability, then you must first establish a culture of debriefing. Debriefing together as a team is the most important thing you can do to ensure your team is constantly improving, continually assessing themselves, and always holding themselves accountable for the team’s success. By conducting thorough debriefs to understand what went wrong, why it happened, and how it can be prevented in the future, a leader can mitigate the risk of repeated errors and encourage a growth mindset and continuous improvement.

Teams that have a culture of debriefing outpace and outperform those that do not because they consistently identify and solve problems together and identify and act on emerging opportunities.

Debriefing is the forum in which the leader establishes the expectations for personal accountability. And they do this by holding themselves personally accountable and taking ownership of their mistakes in front of their team.

When you establish a culture of debriefing, two very powerful things occur. First, people get very comfortable talking about their mistakes and taking ownership of them because they come to understand that the debrief’s purpose is to identify mistakes so the entire team can learn from them and solve them together as a cohesive unit.  This is the opposite of our normal human tendency, which seeks to hide from or cover up our mistakes.

The second thing that happens is that your team will start to actively seek areas for improvement, identify errors, and look for emerging opportunities so they can bring them up during the debrief to improve the team.

Conclusion

Remember, the goal of establishing a culture of accountability is to empower every team member to understand that they should hold themselves personally accountable for the success of the mission and the success of the team.

Creating this culture is an ongoing process that requires the leader’s deliberate effort and commitment to their own personal accountability, and only holding others accountable as a last resort. By practicing Extreme Ownership, communicating clearly, decentralizing command, and establishing a culture of debriefing, leaders can build a culture where personal accountability is ingrained in every aspect of the organization.

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