In today’s workplace, employees often are hired for their unique skills and experience. While this hyper-focused knowledge helps create a competitive edge, it also creates demand for teams where multiple individuals can bring together their specific skill sets to strategize and respond to more complex, organizational goals. To do this successfully requires more than simply uniting appropriately credentialed members, however, it needs collaboration.
Because collaboration does not always occur organically, leaders may need to intentionally create an environment where employees can come together in exceptional ways. For this to happen, all team members needs to feel their voices are heard and matter. In other words, they need psychological safety, that is, a climate where they are comfortable being and expressing themselves. Team members need to know they can be wrong and at ease when having difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors without causing insecurity. While organizational culture has its influence here, individual behavior is more of a key driver.
Psychological safety exists only when there is a willingness by all team members to be respectful of each others’ opinions and willing to engage in healthy debate. When it comes down to it, psychological safety means being vulnerable, and that scares people. It’s not only about being comfortable speaking up yourself, or admitting to your boss that the idea you convinced her to execute was a flop, it means sticking your neck out for a colleague who may be in the hot seat. At the same time, it also means that you know that the feedback you receive, whether encouraging of your ideas or not, will be constructive and supportive.
Leaders can contribute to psychological safety by creating shared understanding, proactively seeking input, and responding appreciatively. This is important because employees perceive the level of psychological safety to be higher when leaders have positive relationships with followers. It is also important for leaders to measure employees’ views on psychological safety. This means team members, including managers, should asks for feedback, and there should be metrics in place to periodically assess how team members feel because damages to psychological safety must be repaired to ensure its continuity.
Employees want this in their workplace! A Pew Research survey found that 89% of adults think it is “essential” for top executives to create a safe and respectful workplace, making it a top three priority for businesses (along with honest and ethical leadership and providing fair pay and good benefits). However, only 30% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions at work count. This is a huge – and costly gap because psychological safety impacts important organizational outcomes.
Psychological safety leads to greater engagement and comfort in experimenting and taking risks because employees don’t fear retribution, punishment, or embarrassment. They are comfortable being collaborative and asking for or offering help. Psychological safety has a reciprocal effect in terms of engagement in that this type of environment encourages greater engagement, which itself adds to the psychological safety. Google conducted a two-year study on team performance and found that psychological safety was, by far, the most important dynamic associated with high-performing teams. Individuals who were on teams with higher psychological safety brought in more revenue, were rated as effective by executives twice as often as other employees, embraced diverse ideas, and were less likely to leave the company. High-performing teams also demonstrate higher engagement, increased motivation, better performance, and greater opportunities for learning and development.
Although psychological safety is a characteristic of the whole team, it starts with the individual. As such, team members need to get in the right headspace to create a psychologically safe team. To increase psychological safety and be more accountable in a team, members should focus on collaboration and curiosity, rather than competition and blame. Recognize that even when teams disagree, every member is a person with their own hopes, anxieties, and families who love them. Like you, they want peace and happiness in their lives.
You can be accountable for your contribution to creating a psychologically safe, collaborative team by adapting a new perspective. Start by reframing your perception of failure as having only disastrous outcomes. Anxiety is wasted if it turns out your boss loves the idea you agonized over bringing forward. Even if it’s rejected, you might get feedback to help you refine it, but either way, it’s very unlikely you will lose your job if your boss doesn’t like your idea. Reframing failure as just one of the many, albeit less desirable, steps on the way to success can change your attitude and approach towards conquering it.
Creating a truly psychologically safe environment means that all team members, regardless of level or location, share and benefit from the values established by the organization. In a face to face environment, team members benefit beyond formal interactions because they also can interact more casually, over coffee or lunch. Remote workers are unable to engage in the same ways. With more people working from home, by choice or need, it is increasingly important for organizations to actively and deliberately create opportunities for all team members to interact.
There are many ways to engage employees across geographical barriers and learn about their views, but the best way, hand’s down, is to ask them. This could, and should, be done on several levels. When creating a new team, or adding a member, ask each team member’s views on their skillsets, what they believe to be their greatest asset to the team, where they might need support, and so on. Don’t be afraid to include more personal information for team-building. Ask how each person got their name or a surprising fact about themselves. Be sure to document or graph responses as a reference to foster collaboration across the whole team.
Beyond work-related projects, teams should also incorporate regular “events” to develop a collaborative and supportive environment. Have coffee or happy hours (maybe at the same time, depending on where team members are located!) where conversations are focused on individuals instead of work. You can also maintain a private team site or YouTube channel where employees are encouraged to post content, such as their children’s first day of school pictures or #DreamVacation links. Building social bonds helps build positive and trusting relationships, which are critical to psychological safety and successful collaboration among teams.
 Jones, B.F. (2017). The science behind the growing importance of collaboration. Kellogg School of Management, KelloggInsight
 Borysenko, Karlyn. (2018). How to create your own psychological safety at work. Forbes.
 Frazier, M.L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R.L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta-analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70, 113-165.
 Delizonna, L., (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review.
 Frazier et al.
 Parker, K. (2018). Many Americans say women are better than men at creating safe, respectful workplaces. Pew Research Center.
 Frazier et al.
Some leaders believe that accountability is intrinsic, with some employees going above and beyond every time, on every task, while others do the bare minimum of work to stay under the radar. Creating an environment designed for accountability, where all employees proudly take ownership of their tasks and outcomes can significantly improve performance at the individual, team, and organizational level.[i]
Accountability is the expectations about what an individual or organization is obliged to explain, justify, or take responsibility for. Traditionally, leaders too often have opted for hierarchical approach to accountability, enforcing a top-down chain of command. This anachronistic view reflects a workplace in which superiors delegate authority to subordinates and hold them accountable for their decision and behavior by dictating what needs to be done, how it should be done, and the expectations for outcomes.[ii] This rarely, if ever, is effective and more likely results in unresolved issues and frustration on the part of leaders and employees.
Fostering an environment of accountability must be fundamental within an organization’s culture.[iii] Knowing and being invested in the organization’s goals, objectives, and key results set the standards for accountability and other expected behaviors and contributions. To that end, everyone in the organization, from the line workers through the CEO, must have a unified understanding of the organization’s goals and what it stands for. Unfortunately, this clarity is glaringly absent from most organizations. A Workplace Accountability Study of 40,000 employees across industries found that 85% of survey participants were not sure what their organizations were trying to achieve. With such a staggering imbalance it is no wonder that there is a lack of alignment and focus in understanding and successfully completing mission critical tasks.[iv]
Other factors beyond culture also influence accountability. Large or complex organizational structures can be challenged in creating an expectation of accountability because projects often involve multiple, and perhaps geographically disparate teams, which can result in blurred leadership and boundaries. Another challenge in large organizations is that decisions or changes in direction may be made by one office, but are not quickly, accurately, or effectively shared with other entities who continue to proceed under different guidelines and goals. With so many moving parts, it is not surprising that inconsistencies arise for which few, if any, participants are willing to assume responsibility. [v]
To create trusting and collaborative relationships that serve as the foundation for accountability there are three areas to consider when assigning tasks.
First, is the task reasonableDoes what you are asking an employee to do make sense in terms of its structure, duration, and priority within the individual’s and organization’s schedule? Ensuring that roles and processes are clear is critical, and eliminating confusion and providing clear guidance on how the proceed is essential prior to implementation. Expectations must be clearly defined if organizational short- and long-term goals are to be met.[vi] The Workplace Accountability Study found that 50% of those surveyed disliked accountability because they didn’t know how to effectively implement it.[vii] Leaders cannot expect employees to be accountable without a clear understanding of what the company is trying to achieve.
Next, ensure that the task is possibleand resources are available to support its completion. Leaders must provide support and resources, along with advice on how to improve. This helps create a learning environment where employees feel like they have the freedom to be more innovative and are comfortable seeking guidance if needed. Creating genuine accountability involves giving up the reigns, so while setting clear goals is critical, it is also important to allow employees the freedom to determine how to achieve those goals.[viii]
Employees who feel their managers care for them want to help the organization succeed; those who don’t, are unmotivated to take any initiative above and beyond their identified requirements.[ix] [x] Teams who are motivated and work well together will identify existing gaps and create new processes that enable them to handle tasks even more efficiently.[xi] Again, this must be reflected in the organization’s culture. To encourage commitment to reaching goals, engage employees in the goal-setting process.[xii] This helps ensure that they understand the expectations and increases their commitment to the project. Conversely a lack of clarity contributes to a lack of accountability.
Finally, the task must be understoodKnowing the goals is one thing, but being aligned on what successful completion of a task looks like might be something else entirely! Once goals are clearly understood, leaders should provide specific, individualized metrics for each role. Further, they should be clear on how each individual’s contributions impact the overall success of the project. This requires feedback and updates on progress, which should link specifically to the goals individuals are tasked with completing.[xiii] [xiv]
To be clear, accountability is a two way process. Inherent in the assignment of a task is a supervisor’s accountability to deliver the appropriate resources to complete the task and to provide the employee with an evaluation of her effectiveness based on pre-determined and agreed upon criteria. This iterates the need for being very clear in identifying which individuals or teams are responsible for each task and letting them know the criteria by which they will be measured, individually and as part of the overall project success. This is particularly critical with cross-functional teams. [xv]
It is also important to note that accountability shouldn’t be viewed as a precursor to punishment. Among those surveyed in the Workplace Accountability study, 80% said feedback was something that happens to them only when things go wrong, if it occurs at all![xvi] In such an environment, employees will be afraid to speak up about issues that may prevent them from task completion, and will most assuredly make them think twice before offering suggestions about a new or more efficient approach.[xvii] Certainly consequences for failing to complete tasks that are reasonable, possible, and understood should be made clear at the outset and enacted when necessary. However, penalizing employees who are unable to complete their tasks because they were not properly prepared or were required to follow an established but ineffective process is unfair and punitive. Of course, when employees know the expectations, have the resources to complete tasks, and receive feedback during the process, the likelihood of failure is virtually eliminated.
To experience the benefits that occur when accountability is an organization-wide expectation, leaders must “walk the talk” and demonstrate by example. Accountability in organizations builds trust, reduces unnecessary repetition and unproductive activity, and achieves better compliance. It may take some effort to implement effective processes, but the successful outcomes for employees and the organization are well worth the effort.
[i] Partners In Leadership. (2014). Landmark workplace study reveals “Crisis of accountability”.
[iv] Partners In Leadership
[v] Ashkenas, R. (2012). Why accountability is so muddled, and how to un-muddle it. Harvard Business Review.
[vii] Partners In Leadership