The Most Valuable Work Skill You Need

Innovative. Creative. Empathetic. Creative. Adaptable.

Almost any career-related infographic or article today includes these and other so-called soft skill traits you desperately need for this century’s dynamic workplace.

They’re not wrong. And I certainly don’t want to add more to your already-overloaded checklist.

But there’s one trait that tends to go missing, whether you’re in a client-facing position or work solely with internal folks.

And that’s accountability.

DragonImages | Thinkstock

“Why, I’m the picture of accountability!” Credit: DragonImages | Thinkstock

What exactly does accountability in the workplace mean?

Showing up for work each day and on time is part of it, yes. But the concept goes far beyond that.

Here are a few examples from TimeWellScheduled:

  • Completing any tasks that have been assigned to you
  • Being responsible for the specific duties that go along with your job
  • Being consistent in doing the right thing in all aspects pertaining to your job
  • Working together towards a common goal for the business

Here’s one I’d add:

  • Recognizing that sometimes, you have to be the one to get things done, even if it’s not in your job description.

And none of this might be intuitive, because…

yuriyzhuravov | Thinkstock

He just can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say. Credit: yuriyzhuravov | Thinkstock

Accountability isn’t a natural state to be

I will forever be grateful to the boss that told me, “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

It’s not something you tend to hear a lot, especially when you’re handed your pack of goals for the year.

It also wasn’t something I heard, ever, during my first couple years in the workforce.

What did seem to come easily was feeling uncomfortable when something went wrong, and finding what seemed to me to be very valid reasons for why.

Yet those very valid reasons weren’t doing me any favors.

Why? Because what it comes down to is ownership. I wasn’t owning my decisions. I needed to realize that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you do two things when you do:

  • Learn from them
  • Do something about them.

If you don’t have a sense of ownership yet, or don’t think you can get it, keep reading.

alphaspirit | Thinkstock

This is either very helpful or very annoying. Credit: alphaspirit | Thinkstock

Three ways to get accountability

1. Drop “somebody should” from your vocabulary.

I know a creative type who bursts with ideas. She’s not so verbal in large brainstorming meetings, but boy, can she sell it in smaller gatherings.

She jots down what I call the “headlines” of her ideas, one-liners that she’ll get back to.

You really believed in this woman’s passion and drive and couldn’t wait to hear what she’d come up with next.

Yet one thing she didn’t excel at was the doing part—getting all these ideas done—even when they fell within her own job description.

The key phrase she uttered over and over again? “Somebody should.”

“I just thought of Idea X to help us promote Campaign Y! Somebody should do A and B to make this happen.”

And just like that, she had already moved on to her next big idea.

By the end of the year, she had a whole list of great ideas she’d come up with, but couldn’t mark any of them as complete. That’s not a good legacy to look back on.

>>What you can do instead: If you’re an idea person, keep the ideas coming—but get selective. Pick out the top three ideas you’d like to focus on for the year. You can add or subtract ideas; you know your own workload best.

Then really look into what it will take to make your ideas come alive. Is this something you can do on your own? Do you need a team? What other duties or projects may be impacted?

The point is to set clear priorities so you aren’t always moving on to the next idea before the first one is even fully hatched, and so you don’t risk letting important tasks drop.

2. Stop the excuses.

It can be tempting to deflect the “What went wrong?” and “How did this happen?” questions with all the great reasons you can find. And these reasons may be valid ones, including things that were out of your control, and things that could happen to anybody.

The thing is, what people want to see is how you handle it if something goes wrong. They want to hear what you’re going to do to fix the problem, or better yet, see what you’ve already done. They may also may want to hear a sincere apology.

Fairly or not, without these factors in play, all they’re going to hear from you is a bunch of excuses. And down goes your credibility and their trust in you.

>>What you can do about it: Along with being responsible for getting things done, being accountable means learning to recognize early on when you might need help or when things aren’t going as planned. It all goes back to that point about ownership.

When you are able to take an more objective view, you can also start to look for solutions to help improve the process.

3. Realize it really is up to you, even when mistakes happen.

Being accountable and taking ownership of things may seem like daunting tasks, but when you break it all down into parts, you’ll find it’s way easier to manage, even when you run into problems.

>>How to break down the roadblock: Linda Galindo has a great set of four questions to ask yourself in her No Excuses: Being Accountable For Your Own Success article.

When something goes awry, ask: “What is the problem?” “What am I doing—or not doing—to contribute to the problem?” “What will I do differently to help solve the problem?” and “How will I be accountable for the result?”

Purestock | Thinkstock

Well, I help that helps. Credit: Purestock

Come on! Can this really work for me?

If you’re sitting there looking at this post and saying, “But taking up this level of accountability in my toxic, dog-eat-dog environment is opening myself to doom and dismay” (bonus points if you’re using these exact words), consider this:

“You can create the type of environment you want to work in, but it starts with you,” says my colleague Robert D. Rettmann. “Saying otherwise is really not taking accountability for the part you might have played in helping to keep that toxic work culture alive.”

See what he did there? It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that starts and ends with you, your behavior, and how you approach things.

Now listen: Sometimes the toxic environment has nothing to do with you. In which case, I advise you to head to and get excellent advice on getting out of toxic cultures.

How have you made yourself more accountable at work?

I owe the inspiration for this post to, which provides a wealth of instructor-led, technical and business training. Since they’re all about teaching essential skills and finding ways to help you improve yourself and become more successful in your career, this month’s campaign is to help you figure out what skills new and seasoned employees alike should sharpen for the workforce. Thanks, Bob Clary, for inviting me to participate! Here’s their blog:

Also read: Who Me? How to Build Accountability In the Workplace.

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