Ownership & Accountability

In recent weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to be asked by a client to prepare and deliver an hour-long keynote speech on “ownership and accountability.”

The focus of this speech is the concept of ownership and accountability as a value, a belief, and the practices that lead to more effective results and business success. This client defines ownership and accountability in specific ways, including being committed to results, knowing and understanding the details, taking responsibility, being disciplined, and focusing on improving results for the business.

In preparation for this assignment, I’ve read various articles and books and researched creative ideas to develop and deliver an inspiring speech on ownership. In doing so, I’ve become more aware of what ownership is in business and what needs to be done to increase ownership at all organizational levels. Let me share some of what I’ve learned.

Defining Ownership and Accountability

Ownership refers to the degree to which one is willing to help others achieve their goals. An individual who embodies ownership takes the initiative and responsibility for their growth and the success of their team or organization.

Accountability focuses on being responsible for the tasks and activities that management assigns to us.

What Is the Difference Between Ownership and Accountability?

Ownership and accountability involve overseeing responsibilities in the workplace. Yet, the level of commitment to which these responsibilities are executed differs for each.

We can view accountability as the stepping stone to ownership. When someone is accountable, they are liable for their own actions and choices.

For example, a project manager overseeing a new product launch is accountable to key stakeholders. The manager must provide stakeholders with regular reports on the project’s progress and back decisions with data.

Ownership takes this concept a step further. Individuals taking ownership possess a deeper personal investment to fulfill their responsibilities and ensure that those around them do the same.

Continuing our example of a project manager, this individual would take ownership by coordinating all aspects of the project from conception to delivery. They ensure all team members understand their responsibilities and have what they need to fulfill expected outcomes.

Ownership and Accountability in the Workplace

Employee ownership and engagement seem to fall squarely in the “needs improvement” category in many organizations. Studies from the Department of Labor suggest that only about 4 percent of U.S. businesses qualify as high-performance workplaces.

This statistic suggests that the vast majority of North American organizations have a significant opportunity to foster new practices that will lead to higher performance. Could it be that a competitive edge in business will come from organizations that align their standards for performance with their organization’s strategies?

This brings us to another question: are you encouraging and developing ownership behaviors in your organization that would allow it to achieve better results? Traditionally, leaders talk about the need to push more responsibility down to front-line team members.

Let’s look at how to create a spark that will ignite the spirit of ownership and accountability in your company.


Benefits of Ownership and Accountability in the Workplace

When management gives employees more responsibility, their ownership level increases for some time—but it isn’t usually sustained over the long haul.

I’d compare this to what usually happens when someone buys a new car. Let me explain. Think back to when you drove a new vehicle straight off the lot. It smells great, feels great, drives great. Premium gas, routine car washes, and factory-recommended oil changes are the norm.

You probably establish some rules related to the car and its upkeep; maybe there will be no eating or drinking allowed in the vehicle, or maybe the kids must remove their muddy shoes before getting inside. More often than not, people take extreme care in how the car looks and performs when it’s brand new.

But many of us begin to relax the rules over time. We question whether we really need premium gas. We get lax about changing the oil as frequently as we had before. The seats become a little sticky, and the upholstery starts to go. You’re still the vehicle’s owner, but your focus on its quality and maintenance is no longer as sharp or attentive as before. What happened?

Maintaining Long-Term Employee Ownership and Accountability

This little tale illustrates why the “push” concept has been marginally effective for most organizations. Simply informing your front-line leaders and team members that they must “own” something, whatever it may be, and then relying on them to act as owners forever after that is commonplace—and leaders usually comply with that mandate, at least for a time.

However, the mandate is too often followed by people failing to meet ownership expectations over the longer term. What happens is that the ownership messages pushed down the ranks by higher-level leaders fade from consciousness and are replaced by concerns such as day-to-day firefighting and other urgent workplace tasks.

Organizations wanting higher ownership levels from their team members must engage them frequently and with great discipline. This will help all of you generate innovative solutions to ongoing challenges. Messages of support, empowerment, and trust are essential to leaders and team members owning their areas of responsibility.

Your meetings, conversations, emails, and other forms of internal communication all must support that message. The essential elements that must be present when creating a community of owners are rigor, regularity, and commitment.

Review CMOE's Employee Development and help your employees reach their full potential with driven performance objectives.

Creating an inclusive culture

When an organization has an inclusive culture, the levels of engagement and participation of its leaders and team members increase. The team feels included in the process of achieving greater organizational success because they actually are included. This idea is embodied in the quote, “We tell unimportant people how to do things; we tell important people why we do things.”

This quote provides a thought-provoking lesson for us all. Given the operational pressures, deadlines, and long lists of to-do’s that exist for workers today, from time to time, we’re bound to unintentionally exclude some members of the organization from the large conversation. The problem is that failing to share more of the “why” prevents our teammates from taking actual ownership and accountability for their responsibilities.

If we wish to maximize team-member involvement and improve ownership in all areas of decision-making and performance, we must enlighten others about our thought processes and explain why we make certain decisions.

Explaining why we do this or why we made that decision certainly takes more time and commitment, but it’s critical. Creating a culture of inclusiveness and responsibility-sharing requires us to recognize that today’s workers want to be in the know and have a voice.
When we allow workers to participate, they’re more likely to accept greater responsibility with far fewer complaints because they understand the rationale behind the request. It seems like a little thing, but it’s not. Understanding motivation matters a great deal.

To think like an owner, owners need a process that allows them to gather, share, and discuss relevant information that affects the business. But distributing information isn’t all that’s required. High-performance, ownership-oriented organizations commit to training and development opportunities that help workers understand and use the information to make better decisions and improve business results.

Key Findings of Accountability and Ownership

Michael Mankins, a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, recently posted these comments related to ownership and accountability:

“If your company’s employees don’t have a sense of ownership and engagement, all the other steps won’t make much difference. By the same token, if you can increase the average level of engagement in your organization, you will likely see the productivity of your entire workforce increase.”

What I take from Mr. Mankins’ words is this: Without a greater focus on organization-wide practices supporting an ownership and accountability culture, substandard performance will become the norm.

Performance-improvement efforts won’t go very far if leaders and team members lack the skills to communicate effectively and solve problems. Offering development opportunities at all business levels shows that you’re committed to your leaders and team members—and they’ll be more committed to the organization.

Workers gain a greater sense of loyalty and put forth greater effort to increase the business’ effectiveness when they’re part of the information stream.

Commit to Building a Culture Rooted in Ownership and Accountability

When organizations commit to the ownership message, share it frequently, foster an environment of openness, explain “why,” and provide information and training at all business levels, they’ll likely experience a significant shift in the engagement levels and ownership capabilities of their entire workforce.

What an opportunity! Go get it.

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About the Author
Eric Mead
Eric is A Senior Vice President for CMOE and specializes in custom learning and development solutions, sales and marketing, and performance coaching. His work in organization development has led him to facilitate workshops on Strategic Thinking, Coaching Skills, Building High Performance Teams, Managing Conflict, Personal Effectiveness, and Leadership Principles. Eric’s expertise is in communication, relationship building, management, marketing, and advertising.

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