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Accountability or Ownership: Moving People from Compliance to Commitment
Monday, July 13, 2015 6:30 AM

Alan Fine

By Alan Fine, International Speaker and Author

International speaker and author Alan Fine will be presenting at the 2015 Cornerstone Leadership Conference and Expo, Sept. 10-12, in San Antonio, Texas. His topic will be "You Already Know How to Be Great." Fine says accountability is one of the most desired things in any organization and can be one of the hardest things to create.

Leaders constantly wrestle with how to increase accountability in the belief that it will help people be innovative, passionate, and release their discretionary effort to go the extra mile. While accountability is very important because it certainly creates compliance, the stuff of high performance—commitment—comes from a different source. Ownership! Accountability and ownership are similar, yet different, and confusing the two can be the difference between compliance and commitment.

Outside In or Inside Out

Think about this common workplace scenario: delivering a monthly report. Typically, reports are due by a deadline. Accountability ensures the report is accurate and consistently delivered on time, every time. The employee who is being accountable will say, “Here is what you asked for.”

Ownership ensures the report is accurate, delivered on time, and might also include suggestions for improvements that are directly connected to the end results the report is intended to address. The employee who has ownership will say:

“Here is what you asked for. I also thought about the real purpose of the report and here’s what I found: the data we’re using would be more accurate if it was pulled from multiple sources. The data would also be easier to interpret with a different template. I recommend we include this other data source and this color coding for the template.”

So, one way to distinguish between accountability and ownership might be: accountability is doing what needs to be done because someone expects it of you, while ownership is doing what needs to be done because you expect it of yourself.

Ownership is not something we put into people from the outside; it is already within our people. We create the environment in which it can be released. New employees on their first week on the job are almost always excited and committed; you can see the light shining in their eyes. They will do almost anything, even work late hours, to get the job done. Yet one year later, the light isn’t shining as brightly, they do the minimum necessary to avoid a poor review, and leave early every chance they get. At some point they became shut down. They didn’t get a thank you, were not acknowledged, and no longer feel appreciated for their contribution. In their mind, they develop a story that says taking ownership isn’t recognized and appreciated and is therefore not worth doing. It’s like being bitten by a dog—once bitten, twice shy!

Restoring Ownership

People need three things for ownership: faith, focus, and fire. They need to believe (faith) that if they take ownership, it will be recognized and rewarded—at a minimum—with a heartfelt thank you. Only then will they pay attention (focus) to what else can be done beyond compliance. When both of these are present, they will become passionate and engaged—in other words, fired up (fire).

Let’s go back to turning in a report. If I don’t believe (faith) I will be acknowledged in any way for doing more than complying, then I will not have the energy (fire) to look for (focus) ways to make it better.

In order to elicit ownership more often, perhaps it’s time to think less about what we need to get people to do, and more about what blocks to faith, fire, and focus we need to remove for them.

Learn more about the Leadership Conference and Expo.

Alan Fine is an internationally sought-after performance innovator, the co-creator of the widely recognized GROW® Model, and pioneer of the modern-day coaching movement. In addition to his work in human performance, Alan is also a
New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and well-respected business executive and professional athlete coach. He has dedicated the past 35 years to helping people from all walks of life elevate their performance and unlock potential.

To learn more about Alan and his breakthrough message, visit