“If only the team would take ownership, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I need someone to be accountable for this project!”

As a leader, how many times have you thought about the idea of accountability, and wished your team would take accountability for things? How many times have you thought about the issues you have and wondered why you’re not getting the engagement you want? Have you ever googled “getting people to be accountable”?

Odds are good if you’ve asked any of these questions, you’re the only one (or few) that’s owning things. It’s also likely that you’re sick of being the only one to do so. It’s equally likely that you don’t realize the reason people aren’t taking ownership is because of how you and other leaders act.

The unfortunate truth is that you cannot ‘make’ someone take accountability for something. You can cajole. You can incentivize. You can even make their bonus contingent upon it, but at that point, what are you trying to achieve?

You need to ask yourself, “how have I created a culture where people don’t want to own things or be accountable?”, “how have I acted when people took accountability and things weren’t perfect?”. It is possible that there are a couple of people that don’t innately take ownership of things, but to have a whole team, or  organization perform like that points to a bigger issue, an issue within the system, the system being the organization and culture.

So how do I get more engagement? How do I get my team to want to take accountability? The first step is realizing that the team’s lack of engagement falls squarely on the shoulders of the leadership and the culture that you’re creating. Think about the last time you had someone from the team take on something and decide to own it. If it didn’t go well, how did you act in that moment? Did you assign blame? Did you seek to understand and move forward? Was punishment on your mind? This moment, this tiny space is your opportunity to create, or crush, accountability within your organization. If you touch the stove and burn yourself, you’re not going to be as likely to touch that stove again in the future, this is the same kind of situation! You need to reward the behavior you want, and discourage what you don’t. If your default mode when things go wrong is to look for someone to blame or punish, you’re encouraging the kind of behavior that leads to no one taking accountability.

So next time things don’t go exactly as planned, take that opportunity to approach the situation with curiosity, understand everyone is doing their best with what they have, and coach the person/team on how things could have gone better. Most of the time, you can’t be any harder on people than they already are on themselves, so help them move forward and be more successful next time. This kind of behavior will encourage people to take ownership, take risks, be innovative, and help push your organization forward.