I was recently in a training course where the words responsibility and accountability were brought up. I, like most of you, have used these two words with the assumption that they have very similar meanings. What I’ve learned over the years is that this just isn’t the case.

Throughout the course of a typical work day, the words accountability and responsibility are used a lot, especially if the results don’t measure up to expectations. So, what do these two words mean? Are they interchangeable? And how can we change our misconceptions to start creating a new level of ownership within your organization and amongst your employees?

When you throw the words accountability and responsibility out there, what are some of the perceived ideas that first come to mind? For me, I begin to get anxious thinking about something I’ve missed or didn’t do to measure up. Questions like, “What results didn’t I hit?" “Who’s responsible for hitting this deadline?” or “Who do we hold accountable for this?” start to pop up. Often, we formulate these questions in an attempt to cover our tail, instead of changing the results.

To gain some clarity let’s first start by tackling what these keywords mean by looking at their definitions:

Accountable — required or expected to justify actions or decisions.

Synonyms: liable, answerable

Responsible — having an obligation to do something, being the primary cause of something.

Synonyms: in charge of, culpable

Both are similar; however, I believe there is a fundamental difference between the two that can help your organization begin to shift from blame and poor performance to personal commitment and ownership. While I believe holding employees accountable is essential for any organization, I often don’t see the desired results from simply doing so. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to explore how to truly begin to effect change. To do so, we need to investigate your workplace culture and begin to foster and embrace a personal level of responsibility where employees go beyond having to justify results and embrace a personal ownership stake in the organization’s health and long-term future.

I’ve had the privilege of working for a mid-size plumbing, electric, heating and cooling organization for several years. I say it was a privilege because of the culture we (not just the owner) created, one where every employee “owned” the successes and failures of the business.  If the company didn’t hit budget, for example, it wasn’t an “oh well, we’ll try harder next time” situation. Instead, we’d look for ways to get back on track and make sure it didn’t happen again.  Can you imagine the freedom this allows an owner? Everyone’s looking out for the team. It’s important to note that I had no financial stake in the company’s success or failure, but I did have pride and personal goals that were fostered by our existing culture. 

I’ve defined culture as the conditions we create within our workplace for either growth or decline. When you’ve created a workplace culture that’s set for personal ownership and growth, you’ll start to see a complete shift in the momentum of your business. You’ll begin to notice that tasks get done no matter who’s responsible, and teams and individuals begin to collaborate and work together without you having to tell them to do so. Responsibility and ownership mean more than staying out of trouble. These words should represent a personal commitment to one another for the betterment of the whole organization.

You may be asking yourself, “How do I go about nurturing this level of personal commitment from my employees?” Great question, and based on my own experience I’ve come up with a few qualities that I’ve noticed of companies that have created this high-level of personal ownership:

  • Owners/managers are personally invested in the employees’ goals, and work together to achieve results;
  • Regular meetings focused on transparent reporting, with responsive feedback;
  • Cared for but not enabled;
  • Management that lives what they teach;
  • Active communication, where everyone has a voice;
  • Analyzing both success and failure as a team;
  • Daily connection across departmental functions;
  • Allow time to share dreams, both personal and professional;
  • Conflict or issues are engaged immediately;
  • Goals made known to everyone;
  • Team rewards/incentives created instead of being solely individual-focused;
  • Issues resolved amongst employees;
  • Building an environment of trust; and
  • Make decisions as a team.

These qualities, over time and with the right mindset, will begin to shift the pendulum of personal ownership. However, these traits must begin with you! Be honest and open with yourself on where you need to improve, then actively begin to look for opportunities to help others in your business. The solutions to most of the issues in your business are right in front of you. Your employees are capable and willing to go farther with you than you may be able to imagine right now. I was able to share not only my professional dreams and aspirations, but also my personal goals with my leadership team, then was mentored to equip me to reach my goals. As a response, I gave more of myself to the business. More innovation, more heart, more time (willingly), more personal responsibility, and more openness to change. I believe that every organization can benefit from more ownership.

Publication date: 9/24/2018

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