How to build a culture of ownership and accountability

April 27, 2020

For an organization to perform at its best, there has to be a high degree of trust in the workplace. A strong consensus that the people around you are operating with honour and integrity is a given. But perhaps a more nuanced nurturer of trust is a culture of ownership and accountability embedded into the culture and values of your company.

Without this ownership culture, and of course the type of employees who believe in taking ownership and being accountable, projects will continue to be delayed or fail altogether.

This article pieces together some concepts that will help teams and managers foster a culture of ownership, self-reliance and increased performance throughout their organisation.


What does it mean to take ownership at work?

Ownership is really about taking initiative. It’s an understanding that taking action is your responsibility, not someone else’s. It’s the fundamental principle that you, as an individual, are accountable for the delivery of an outcome, even where others have a role to play.

Taking ownership of a project doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re managing a project. It certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your trust in others. What it means is that you should care about the outcome to the extent that you would care if you were the owner of the organization. You should feel an obligation to the results of the organization and act on items wherever required to achieve those results.

Sometimes you lack the time or resources needed to complete a task, or what you need resides elsewhere in the organization. In these cases, taking ownership means bringing your idea forward to someone who has the capacity to get it done, instead of using circumstances to justify inaction.

Taking ownership is a commitment. It tells others that you can be trusted to do what’s required.

What's the difference between taking ownership and being accountable?

Being accountable means taking responsibility for an outcome. Where ownership is the initiative, accountability is the follow-through.

It means you will deliver as promised, respecting any deadlines or budget constraints that were mandated to you. It also means you’re forthcoming when, as sometimes happens, you weren’t able to deliver. Being accountable for a project means that you are honest and proactive with your communication when you are ultimately unable to deliver what was promised. By taking responsibility for failure as well as for success, you’re demonstrating an acknowledgement of the impact you’ve had on teammates. This, in turn, usually earns you the respect of your teammates, even if you weren’t able to deliver. So you can begin to see why accountability and trust are so closely linked.

Being accountable tells others that you can be trusted to do what you say you are going to do. This is integrity in its purest form.

Why is it important to build a culture of ownership and accountability in the workplace?

When employees take ownership of their work, they treat the business they are working for — and its state of well-being — as if it were their own. They take more care with decisions, because they see the business as a part of themselves. They also tend to be more driven and motivated, looking for creative ways to improve the quality of their work. Critically, this mindset is infectious, and the more powerful your culture of ownership becomes, the more successful your business will become.

People who don’t take ownership are more likely to simply go through the motions and do the minimum that’s required because, ultimately, the result doesn’t matter to them. Unfortunately, this mindset is also infectious, and if left to fester you can quickly see large parts of your workforce rotting away.

How does ownership and accountability connect to trust in the workplace?

Trust is built on confidence that your teammates are striving towards the same objectives that you are. It’s the comfort that comes from knowing that everybody really cares.

Thinking about delegation and micromanagement helps you to identify whether or not you have trust in your workplace. If you don’t feel that your teammates will do the right things and come back with results, then you’re lacking in trust. Low trust translates to poor productivity, and you end up devoting extra time and energy following up and managing details you shouldn’t have to. If you don’t feel trusted, you’re less likely to take initiative because you’re already afraid of the criticism that’s coming your way.

Ownership and accountability build trust. And trust encourages employees to take ownership. Trust reinforces accountability because when you know that you’re trusted, you don’t want to squander that by letting your teammates down.

Paint a picture of success

A key factor in building a culture of ownership and accountability is painting a picture of what success looks like. This sets expectations for them clearly and defines the end goal. You don’t need to, and in fact should not, tell them how to get there; that’s for them to decide.

By focusing on the end goal and not the journey, you are demonstrating trust in your employees, which empowers them. Employees who are given responsibilities rather than tasks are more likely to take responsibility, and perform better.

So let your employees know clearly what end result you are expecting, and let them figure out how to get there.

Begin with 'why'

This concept of focusing on responsibilities rather than goals is all about putting the ‘why’ before the ‘how’. As much as possible, you should communicate why a person’s work is important. This is your responsibility as a leader; to guide the vision. People are naturally more passionate about something that they think is important. And without explaining the purpose behind what they’re doing, they will fail to attribute meaning to their work.

So as a manager, give your employees a clear vision that includes why their work is important and how it impacts the bigger picture. Understanding why allows an employee to come to their own conclusions as to how to achieve the objective, and make the right decisions where there is ambiguity.

Avoid micromanaging

Breathing down people’s necks creates resentment and discourages initiative. It makes your employees feel like they are just a means to an end, or a cog in the wheel.

Micromanaging teaches employees never to make their own decisions out of fear of criticism. They end up waiting for your approval for everything and constantly checking in to make sure that what they’re doing is OK. Because you’re effectively punishing initiative by doing this, you can’t expect to create a culture of ownership and accountability within your organization.

Everybody’s mind works differently, and your business can always benefit from the multiple perspectives within your workforce. But if the scope of someone’s work is too narrowly defined, they will simply stop thinking. Because it’s almost impossible to take ownership of something that you feel is already too tightly gripped by somebody else.

So when delegating work, set the vision in a way that leaves room for your team to make decisions, solve problems and think creatively in achieving the outcome. This will make them happier and more productive than any cheap perks.

Don't forget to listen

Communication is never a one-way street. Your team must feel free to speak up and share their ideas with you, without fear of dismissal. Not listening to your employees’ ideas fails in the same way as micromanagement. It teaches them that they really don’t have any impact to make, and are simply carrying out someone else’s leap of faith. As a business leader, you also want as many ideas to come your way as possible, and by refusing to listen you are probably passing up excellent opportunities.

Even if you decide not to apply your employees’ ideas, listening to them creates trust and mutual respect. And this is the sort of culture you want if your employees don’t seem to be taking ownership at the moment.

Internal vs. external locus of control

The most successful people are proactive about finding and solving problems, and comfortable with increased autonomy. Simply having responsibilities tends to make us more action-driven people, because we know that others are relying on us and things are not always just going to work out on their own.

Sometimes we can’t control what happens to us, but we can still control our reaction and how we navigate those situations. Responsible people take charge of their own personal actions, but some people instead opt to blame others. Blaming others is a way to justify inaction, or at least deflect attention away from it. It’s pretty much a full-on boycott of responsibility in favour of appeasement, or even pity.

A good way to understand this is with the psychological concept of ‘locus of control’. This concept proposes that people tend to have an internal or external locus of control.

Someone with an external locus of control generally believes that their successes and failures are governed by external influences, such as the actions of other people, good or bad fortune, or nature. Having an internal locus of control, on the other hand, means believing that our successes and failures are products of our own actions.

In order to build a culture of ownership and accountability in the workplace, you want to work with people with an internal locus of control where possible. This is a more positive outlook, focusing on what you can do, rather than being preoccupied with things that have been done and can’t be changed.


How can you tell if you’re not taking ownership or being accountable?

  • “It’s not my fault, I sent him an email last week but he didn’t reply.”
  • “It’s not in my job description, why was it given to me?”
  • “It’s not fair that I got blamed for this project failing.”

If you find yourself saying these things at work, it’s a sign that you’re not taking ownership.

Taking ownership of your work is an opportunity for you to make a powerful impact, be proud of your achievements and play an important role in keeping the business alive. If you believe that your success is somehow limited by the behaviour of others, you will never reach your full potential.

Asking yourself these questions will help you to understand whether or not you’re the kind of person who takes ownership of their work.

  1. Do I spend more time working or complaining?
  2. Do I more often push forward or procrastinate?
  3. Am I envious of others’ achievements or keen to learn from them?
  4. Do I believe I just deserve success or am I excited to earn my own way?
  5. Do I tend to point fingers or problem-solve?
  6. When things don’t go my way, do I play the victim or become a victor?
  7. Which matters most, others’ opinions of me or my opinion of myself?
  8. Do I ever offer constructive ideas?

Ownership starts with leaders

Ultimately, as the leader of an organization, you get to choose who you work with. But that doesn’t mean you have to fire those who aren’t forthcoming with ownership and accountability.

By putting trust in your managers and encouraging them to put trust in their team members, you'll be able to build a culture of ownership and accountability throughout your organization that leads to sustained, long-term success.

© Grindstone, 2021.  All rights reserved.

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