How to Create Accountability in Collaborative Work Environments

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We know collaboration is essential, but many of us still struggle with getting it right. It often seems like one person is putting just a little less effort in than everyone else. It’s frustrating – and not a unique problem.

Research has quantified just how impactful collaboration can be for a business. A study by Deloitte found that when employees collaborate, on average they work 15% faster, do better work, and are more innovative. Companies that have a collaborative approach are twice as likely to outgrow their competition and more likely to improve their profit. 

But, collaboration alone doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, collaboration without accountability can lead to project delays, lack of engagement, and missed KPIs. Large enterprises with lots of different teams often struggle to create accountability in collaborative work environments. When too many people “own” a project, the responsibility for the project’s success becomes dispersed – with the result being that no one is accountable if something goes wrong. 

Luckily, technology and strong management can improve accountability. Here’s how to get the maximum benefit from a collaborative work environment at your business.

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The Collaboration Paradox

Globalisation and the rise of remote work have led to a groundswell of collaboration among individuals and teams dispersed around the world. Hotel management is a perfect example: few people realise that an individual hotel property might be owned by one party, be managed by another, and carry the brand flag of a third company. Even within one property, there may be four different teams working in sync to meet guest demands and provide a five-star experience.

At large, multinational companies, complex tasks now typically involve teams of 100 members or more. The size of these teams leads to bottlenecks, shifted responsibilities, lack of ownership, and a reluctance to share knowledge or resources freely. 

“Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done,” explains Harvard Business Review.

The collaboration/accountability paradox will become even more pronounced as companies commit to improving diversity within teams. Diverse teams have conclusively been proven to be better for business. McKinsey research shows that companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform their national industry median on EBIT margin and 27% on EP margin. And that’s just one important diversity metric. 

But, diversity increases the challenges of collaboration faced by large enterprises. HBR research shows that team members collaborate more easily if they perceive themselves as being alike. “The differences that inhibit collaboration include not only nationality but also age, educational level, and even tenure,” said the report. “Greater diversity also often means that team members are working with people that they know only superficially or have never met before—colleagues drawn from other divisions of the company, perhaps, or even from outside it.”

The challenges of collaborating diverse teams do not preclude large companies from committing to diverse hiring. Nor should these challenges discourage managers who are trying to manage large workforces. What’s needed in these collaborative environments are proactive steps to create ownership, as well as the tools and technology to enable teams to communicate effectively. 

5 Ways to Create Accountability

Accountability is a feeling of ownership an employee has for the objectives, outcomes, and goals of the company. When an employee feels personally responsible for contributing to the success of the business, collaborative work environments click – and the company begins to see big results. Here’s how to create a positive sense of accountability among employees.

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Clearly define roles 

Each individual team member needs marching orders: what is their role within a team, a project, and the organisation at large? Collaboration improves, research shows, when each member of the team knows what they can do independently to contribute to the overall success of the business. Create accountability by giving each person the autonomy to take ownership of one discrete piece of the project. 

What does a clearly defined role look like? Here are a few ways to make sure each team member knows their responsibilities in a collaborative work environment. 


  • Write down expectations. Don’t leave anything to ambiguity: provide each team member with a clearly defined job description or scope of work that you can refer back to if need be. 
  • Set SMART outcomes. A SMART goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Goals should be clearly defined with a timeline and set employees up to succeed. 
  • Frame the role in a larger picture. Share why an employee’s particular role is important to support the collaborative work environment. Get team member buy-in to create that critical sense of ownership.


Avoid any confusion in a collaborative work environment by setting expectations for each employee – and keep track of work using the right tools and technology.

Use the right technology

Sometimes, all that’s needed for improved accountability and collaboration is the right tool. Consider this: 96% of organisations that added a team messaging tool saw an increase in team collaboration. In the hotel industry, staff collaboration tools rank among the best hotel software solutions – properties of all sizes benefit from group and individual messaging, task management workflows, unlimited file sharing and storage, and shared calendars. 

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Just the ability to communicate can make a huge difference. “My IT staff is using the built-in team messaging,” Christopher Do, Chief Technology Officer for The Association of California Water Agencies told RingCentral. “We’ve set up group texts for our help desk, so when a ticket comes in from a user, we can have two or three of our IT experts collaborating on the issue in real-time.”

Staff collaboration software provides visibility into who is assigned to what. For instance, a hotel’s front desk team can check to see if housekeeping has finished turning over rooms, and direct guests accordingly. This leads to a level of accountability that improves guest satisfaction, operational efficiency, and employee morale. 

Provide frequent coaching

Gallup research found that an “accountability problem may actually be a coaching problem in disguise.” Employees who are perceived as dropping the ball or not contributing to a collaborative work environment may simply need better management. 

See also  Synergy Research Reports RingCentral #1 in Worldwide UCaaS, Growing 2X Faster than Market

Fewer than 50% of workers received feedback from their manager in the past year, and sign that employees across industries aren’t being held accountable in a positive way. Instead, employees may see accountability as a punishment: a piece of negative feedback that comes up in a performance evaluation. This can be demoralising and discouraging, and cause some of the negative behaviour identified in collaborative work environments (resource hoarding, or neglecting to share knowledge with other team members). 

Train your managers to be proactive about giving feedback. Frame any performance corrections in a professional development context. Check-in frequently to make sure employees are set up for success, and focus on building relationships to make collaboration that much easier. 

Empower your managers

Coaching is a double-edged sword: many managers are comfortable with positive reinforcement, but few like the idea of also playing the bad cop. Unfortunately, accountability in collaborative work environments sometimes requires a manager to call out negative or unproductive behaviour. And, a survey by Harvard Business Review found that only one out of every two managers is rated highly on “Holds people accountable — firm when they don’t deliver.”

Collaborative environments in which one contributor does not pull their weight consistently underperform those in which everyone contributes equally. But, when an individual calls out or punishes so-called “free-riders” who pull down group performance, that individual pays a personal price in social standing. “In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual,” explains HBR.

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It’s no wonder that managers aren’t interested in sticking their neck out to enforce accountability – their social standing among coworkers can be negatively impacted. But, managers need to set expectations and stick to them, helping the overall group (and company) perform better. 

Train your managers to set expectations, communicate those clearly, and take action when someone isn’t delivering the results. Treat accountability as you would professional development: your manager is investing in creating better, happier, more productive employees. What can they do to set someone up for success? Frame accountability as a personal success performance metric, rather than a punishment.

Incorporate your remote workers

The pandemic has certainly accelerated the rate of people switching to remote work, but telecommuting has been on the rise consistently for the last five years. Teams that are collaborating at a distance often encounter issues with accountability that are more difficult to solve. When you aren’t interacting face-to-face, it can be hard to pinpoint specifically where a ball has been dropped or a free-rider is bringing down morale. 

Many of the same principles to creating accountability for in-office employees apply to remote teams – but more so. Remote workers often feel disconnected from the company culture and may struggle to be productive if this is a new way of working for them. As such, managers should define everything: make sure roles are clear from day one. Clear communication also translates to ending “unspoken rules” – in-office norms of which a remote employee may not be aware. These unspoken rules can contribute to misunderstanding, feelings of isolation, and an instinct to leave things up to interpretation – all leading to a lack of accountability. 

Yet, you should also resist the urge to micromanage your remote workers: clear communication does not mean checking in constantly and creating a culture of stress and pressure. Instead, find ways to be helpful and provide mentorship, rather than to constantly ask for updates. 

Finding a balance: the limits of collaboration

Trello reports that 67% of employees feel that spending too much time in meetings distracts them from getting their job done. Collaboration is a double-edged sword: it’s useful in some instances, and unproductive in others. 

Take Zappos, for instance. The shoe company infamously announced a new organisational structure in 2015 called “holacracy – a form of self-management that confers decision power on fluid teams, or “circles,” and roles rather than individuals.” Holacracy was seen as the extreme version of a “flat” organisation, one in which there is no hierarchy of management. 

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When it works, holacracy’s intention isn’t to completely do away with management, but rather to distribute it to the individual level. As Harvard Business Review explains, “Each staff member has a powerful voice, and employees are organised into self-managed circles. Power and authority can flow in virtually any direction, but with an eye to maximising efficiency, the hierarchy helps the organisation determine how many circles should exist, identify which circle should decide on a particular idea or proposal, and create links between circles.” 

In a flat organisation, rather than accountability flowing from the bottom up, groups are accountable to one another. The goal of a flat organisation or holacracy is to encourage collaboration and to improve productivity. But, does it work? 

The short answer: probably not. Groups cannot collaborate and be accountable to one another without a layer of management to help. The reason for this is that companies employ individuals, not groups. Every employee is a person who has their own goals for individual recognition, feedback, and progression within their career. Holding a group to a certain level of accountability disregards the individual accountability and responsibility each individual has to the overall company.  As Elliot Jacques, research professor in management science at George Washington University, argues “group authority without group accountability is dysfunctional, and group authority with group accountability is unacceptable.” 

Zappos has quietly worked to add managers back into the equation. Their experience shows that accountability in a collaborative environment needs a single nexus: the group cannot replace a manager when it comes to delegating, providing individual development, and managing the flow of traffic to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Collaboration only works as well as the individuals who can keep the team focused on the final goal – and ensure every employee is set up for success in the process. 

Originally published Nov 10, 2020, updated Jan 16, 2023

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