Real Employee Engagement Requires Accountability


By Bill Leonard April 29, 2014

NASHVILLE, TENN.—Engagement without accountability creates entitlement, and entitled workers, in turn, will come to expect to receive something from their employers for putting little or no effort into their jobs, said Cy Wakeman, keynote speaker for the April 29 general session of the Society for Human Resource Management 2014 Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

“If employees aren’t accountable for what they do every day, we are sending the message that people aren’t responsible for their own success,” said Wakeman, who is a best-selling author and renowned human resource management consultant. “People often believe that to change their lives, they need to change their circumstances, and then they would be happy. But that’s flawed logic.”

Wakeman said that changing your circumstance or reality will never guarantee success because reality is a harsh mistress: As much as people believe they can bend reality to their way of thinking, unless they take responsibility for changing themselves, then happiness will always remain elusive, she said.

“Happiness and success are collaborated with accountability,” Wakeman added. “To really change yourself or change an employee’s performance, then quit arguing with reality, because that is an argument you will lose 100 percent of the time.”

People often blame reality for their troubles and failures by saying, “I missed the deadline because I was interrupted too many times,” or “I didn’t get the information I needed from someone else.” She claimed that the best response from business leaders in this situation is not sympathy but empathy.

“Sympathy is huddling with the person and saying: ‘Oh, poor baby I’m so sorry you have these problems,’ ” she said. “Empathy is something different. It’s asking employees what they can do to own the process and make sure their deadlines are met.”

Interruptions are the reality of an office-setting, so the goal could be setting boundaries to ensure expected interruptions don’t interfere with deadlines, Wakeman stated. If another department or person is slow to respond, then employees should take the initiative to find the information they need.

“Accountable people believe that they choose their own destiny,” she said. “Your level of accountability is your level of happiness and success.” She outlined the four elements of accountability as:

  • Commitment or having the will to get it right.
  • Resilience or staying the course.
  • Ownership or accepting the consequences of actions.
  • Continuous learning or having the perspective to see and understand success.

Wakeman asserted that the attitude of every employee should be “How can I help?” and “What can I do to add value?”

“Anybody can stand there and complain or give their opinion of why something isn’t working,” she said. “Opinions don’t help anybody, so stop judging and start helping. Let’s all ditch the drama.”

She told the audience a story about how she grew to hate grocery shopping after she remarried and now had to feed four sons plus four stepsons aged 10 to 22.

“One thing I have learned is that the boys eat … a lot. Who knew, right?” she said. “So I came to believe that grocery shopping was the source of all my pain and suffering, and of course I grew to dread it.”

Wakeman said she then decided to become accountable and change the way she approached shopping. She mapped out the grocery store divided into increments of two aisles. She then listed what she needed from the aisles on index cards. She requires four of her boys to shop with her now and hands each one a card, telling them to divide and conquer.

“I tell them to get everything on the list from their assigned aisles and to do it in 15 minutes,” she said. “And I set rules like no running, no pushing, no shoving or knocking people down.”

Then, Wakeman usually gets an iced latte, finds a magazine and visits the floral department, since it’s always the prettiest place in a grocery store.

“I then thumb through my latest copy of Oprah looking for self-help tips because I am the strategic thinker, and my peeps are operations,” she said. “I took accountability for my situation and have reduced my trips to the grocery store to 15 minutes, when it was taking me more than two hours.”

The point of her grocery store anecdote was to show that great results are possible as long as you are willing to assume accountability for your actions.

“Reality isn’t where you can’t succeed; it’s where you must succeed,” she said. “You can easily measure results by the amount of accountability in your organization. If you understand this, then the truth will set you free.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs

Earn your SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP.

Apply by March 20 and save $75 on exam fees with early-bird pricing.

Apply by March 20 and save $75 on exam fees with early-bird pricing.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.