Accountability refers to what your goals are; taking ownership refers to how you accomplish them explains Sandy Geroux

Most of us have heard that in order to WOW customers and co-workers alike, we must hold ourselves and others accountable for the actions necessary to create WOW experiences. Many people either consider the terms “being accountable” and “taking ownership” interchangeable, or they forget about taking ownership altogether, focusing solely on holding people accountable for their actions and goals. However, several subtle but highly important differences exist between the two that change how we look at them in terms of our own actions, as well as the results we ask of others.

Accountability versus Ownership

Rather than merely striving for an overall accountability goal, taking ownership means doing whatever is necessary to ensure quality service every step of the way. When all tasks are combined, not only is the goal achieved, but each task necessary to achieve it is highly successful in its own right.

For example, you may have had an accountability goal of serving 20 people well this month, but you may have dis-served 20 others in the process. If you focus solely on the goal, rather than on each interaction that comprises the goal, you allow yourself to believe it is acceptable not to WOW any particular individual. In other words, a “Just OK” experience (in fact, many “Just OK” experiences strung together) may be acceptable as long as you reach your goal.

What does it do to the entire organization’s reputation and success if every associate is not focused on creating WOW experiences for everyone they encounter? This is especially troubling when you remember that, in our current age of rampant social media, dissatisfied customers (and employees) can tell 5,000 “close friends” about their experience, allowing everyone who reads it to draw the wrong conclusion based on one imperfect experience.

Additionally, if you pride yourself on the quality of your work, “Just OK” experiences are never acceptable, and you will work to make each one a WOW, regardless of the status of the goal. By taking ownership for creating a WOW experience for each person you serve, all 40 in our above example will be well served, laying the groundwork for higher future success!

In other words, success is not about the goal; it’s about how we treat people as we’re striving for the goal. If we treat people well, the goal will take care of itself.

Accountability pertains only to our own job and goals; taking ownership refers to our willingness to help in other areas, even if it’s not technically “our job.”

When we’re accountable for our goals, we’re focused on those that pertain to our own little world. But taking ownership means that we’re concerned with the success of the entire organization, even if it is technically outside the scope of our job. When we notice something that needs to be done anywhere in the organization, we either do it, help someone else do it, or bring it to someone’s attention so the proper person can take care of it. Taking ownership means refusing to ignore a situation just because “it’s not my job.”

A striking example of this occurred at one of my clients’ companies. While I waited in the reception area for the rest of my party to arrive, the receptionist left her desk to do an errand. A man soon arrived and stood at the desk, waiting for the receptionist to return. Before she came back, a different woman approached the desk and began rifling through some papers. The man, thinking she was the receptionist, straightened up and prepared to speak to her when she looked up. She never did! She finished looking through the papers, turned around and left without addressing him. As she had conducted her search, you could see the man’s shoulders droop as he realized that not only was she not going to wait on him, she was not even going to acknowledge him!

How disrespectful does it feel to have someone act as though you don’t exist? What this woman forgot was that while she may not have had a Job Duty to help him, we all have a Human Duty to at least show respect and humanity to everyone we encounter. If she had taken ownership for creating WOW experiences (or at least preventing OW experiences) for everyone she met, she would have remembered her human duty to at least say hello to him, let him know she was not the receptionist and that the receptionist would be back shortly. Further, she could have offered to help him anyway, or offered to get the receptionist so he did not have to wait long.

Accountability has a “ceiling” represented by the overall goal; taking ownership has no ceiling or cap because it focuses on individual actions or tasks, regardless of the status of the goal.

Once you reach your goal, the temptation is strong to stop trying so hard on the remaining tasks during the period of accountability. For example, once a salesperson reaches his accountability goal of $20,000 in sales each month, he may do things a little slower, not try so hard to please the next person, or take a little longer returning an important phone call from a potential customer for the rest of that month. His efforts would begin with renewed vigor when the next month began, as he must once again strive to achieve his pre-set goal.

Let’s face it, while our goals may differ, we are all human and tempted at times to feel, “I’ve earned a little break because I’ve met my goals.” But taking ownership for creating a WOW for everyone we serve – no matter where we are with respect to our accountability goals – means that no important phone call gets put off, no co-worker is unnecessarily pushed to the back burner, and no one is allowed to believe their tasks have been forgotten or ignored.

Putting it into context for our profession, if someone calls you or your executive and their issue can’t be resolved immediately or requires you to delegate it to someone else, do you follow up to ensure it was done? Or do you just pass it along and forget about it, assuming it will be done or that nothing will go wrong? Taking ownership means personally circling back to ensure that the situation was fully handled and the caller was satisfied.

Accountability is “forced” on us from external sources; taking ownership comes from within.
Because accountability usually originates from an external source, it has a fairly negative connotation (even though it often does produce positive overall results). Taking ownership is based on internal motivation and has a more positive connotation. Whenever we activate people’s inner drive, they hold themselves accountable, rendering external accountability a mere “formality.”

Relying on accountability also allows human nature to work against us, occasionally causing us to “rebel.” A young college student startled me one day by calculating (based on her current grades and number of absences from class) how many more classes she could afford to miss, as well as the minimum score she needed on her final exam, and still pass the course! Rather than planning to attend every class and get the best possible grades, she was actually calculating how LITTLE she could get away with doing and still get a passing grade!

The same holds true in our professional lives. Even the most dedicated of us sometimes succumb to the temptation to rebel against a pre-determined constraint or requirement, especially if the motivation to do so does not come from within… and I am sure we’ve all encountered people who do just enough to satisfy their boss, doing only what is necessary to keep their job. Their inner drive needs to be activated!

The fact is that no one is immune from the process. Taking ownership only works when it applies to everyone, with leaders and team members alike being just as committed to taking ownership as they expect the next person to be.

So, the next time we hold ourselves or anyone else accountable for a certain goal, let’s ensure that we also take ownership for the highest level of success of every element that comprises that goal, making the goal not only easier to achieve, but highly likely to be exceeded… and creating WOW experiences in the process.

International speaker, trainer and author Sandy Geroux, M.S., is a former administrative professional who helps organizations achieve breakthrough performance through her interactive, engaging and educational keynotes and training programs. If your teams ... (Read More)

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