How Ownership Solves the Accountability Paradox

Modern companies face a paradox.
Jackie Smyth
May 09, 2017

They say they want authentic, innovative and engaged employees. But by implementing ‘accountability’ mechanisms to achieve this, they end up creating the opposite. Consultants Jackie Smyth and Will Karlsen argue that business leaders can resolve this paradox by first encouraging a sense of ownership.

Typically, employees are bound to their tasks by monetary incentives and hopes of promotion (or fear of the sack). But although such an approach can work in the short run, it often comes at the expense of intrinsic motivations such as care, interest, trust, and empathy. And if a project’s goals are unclear, unachievable or unfair, then staff quickly lose any sense of commitment, self-confidence and ultimately trust in the organisation. Rather than engaging staff, ‘accountability’ can spread vulnerability, fear, and distrust.

Instead, accountability needs to be an outcome, not a starting point. Companies must begin by encouraging a sense of ownership, i.e. making employees feel that their interests and actions—not just the financial rewards—are bound up in a project’s outcome. An ‘ownership’ approach requires three elements to be in place.

  • Ethical leadership: This creates the conditions for psychological and emotional ownership through employee wellbeing and job satisfaction.
  • Trust in the organisation: Individuals identify with an organisation that appears to value their contribution. When staff stops trusting the organisation, they will start to prioritise self-preservation over initiative, and be less likely to communicate their ideas and opinions.
  • Personal development: If employees can connect the many, intangible aspects of their work, they can begin to own what they do and how they do them. This increases commitment and boosts self-confidence. It is the point at which employees choose to be accountable.

Companies must begin by encouraging a sense of ownership by making employees feel that their interests and actions are bound up in a project’s outcome.

Accountability is then no longer about a project’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’ but about a person’s willingness to own the creative process and its consequences. Employees rapidly get to the point where they can state: ‘I did this, and this is how I did it.’ It is transformational for the individual and the organisation.

A wrong way and a right way

Consider the case of a company that put accountability first. Immediately after the merger of two communications businesses, the company’s leadership team outlined growth plans, including staff incentives. Having worked closely together pre-merger, the leaders were clear about their individual roles and happy with the new business structure. Believing in the value of self-determination and autonomy, the leaders decided to make junior managers accountable for developing their own business areas. But junior employees were worried about job security and cultural clashes. Being asked to take responsibility for growing their part of the business was not received in the spirit in which it was offered. To them, it seemed like a way to weed out the weakest. Moreover, the relatively young workforce knew little about how to build a business. No-one wanted to be accountable for a challenge they neither understood nor trusted.

By contrast, an IT business wanted to change a macho culture that was preventing talented women from reaching senior roles and holding back the company. Long, intense working hours were seen as a measure of commitment and potential, while high performers were rarely challenged over poor behaviour. Consequently, many women lost the motivation to progress. Prioritising ownership over accountability, the leadership started by gauging the depth of feeling around issues of bias, behaviour and personal preferences. They ran workshops that gave participants the freedom to be explicit about the problems they faced and to explore sophisticated solutions. Participants willingly took ownership of the discussions and what needed to be done, and the organisation came to recognize the biases and behaviour that needed to be eliminated if they really wanted a healthy business.

An ownership paradigm

A useful framework to help staff achieve that sense of ownership is to have them explore the meanings and inter-connections of six facets of their work: outcomesreputationactionplanstrategy and purpose. For example, asking: ‘why people do the things they do’ explores the link between purpose and action. Asking how others’ view of you can be affected by the way you do things allows staff to discuss the connection between reputation and strategy, and so on. After undertaking a discussion within a carefully framed paradigm, company leaders looking to embed an ownership strategy should:

  • Emphasise transparency: Be open about a project’s goals to ensure full understanding;
  • Create clarity: Ensure everyone knows what team members do in the organization and on the project; and
  • Step back: Assuming that everyone shares the same goals leave staff to get on with the task.

*This article was co-authored by Will Karlsen, a UK coach and facilitator working with major organisations in the public and private sector worldwide.