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Years ago, I worked at a company that didn’t have the most progressive management. In fact, it often seemed to be backward to me.

I soon noticed that no one really felt good about working there. For most it was only a paycheck, and old-timers had discovered that the best thing to do was to follow orders whenever they were given.

But what I figured out over time is that no one took initiative and no one felt compelled to take a risk because they would always pay the price if they failed. If you just did what your manager told you to do, you would never go wrong and your job was secure.

A year after I left the company, it was acquired by another company and within six months was shut down. That meant that all 150 employees lost their jobs.

A recent survey shows that fear of failure, of making a mistake, often causes employees to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. That anxiety was found to be the single largest contributor to risk aversion and lack of accountability in today’s workplace, according to the survey of more executives, managers and employees in more than 500 U.S. companies by the American Management Association.

“At the heart of improving innovation and productivity is an ability to empower and motivate employees to take thoughtful or well-reasoned risks,” says Sandi Edwards, a senior vice president of the association. “Until the fear of failing issue is addressed, this will remain a threat to innovation and accountability for results.”

According to the survey, a large percentage of the workforce is now risk-averse. “This may be a trend stemming from the sluggish economy or the weakened job market, but management also plays a significant role in supporting the ability to take risks,” Edwards says.

The survey reports that 38 percent of those surveyed believe fear of being held responsible for mistakes is the biggest obstacle to employees accepting greater responsibility.

“Does the organization really encourage initiative or taking risks?” asks Edwards. “Is the failure of a project viewed as a routine part of operating a highly productive business?”

Edwards advised that while someone always needs to be accountable for the outcome, the more critical aspect is how the failure is managed which reflects the organization’s prevailing values. “Leaders who are intolerant of any failure are certainly a factor in why many workers seem to avoid taking responsibility.”

Clearly a shift in gears is in order. No one sets out to fail, but companies can ill-afford to stifle the creativity of their workers to improve productivity or efficiency. Often, the best solutions to company problems come directly from those involved on a daily basis, not from management meetings.

Fifty-three percent of survey participants say a culture where well-reasoned risk-taking is encouraged is the best way for workers to step up and take responsibility for their work. The same 53 percent said that accountability should be included in performance reviews and goal-setting.

“Great organizations work at cultivating a healthy culture and developing their people to ensure that innovation and accountability go hand in hand,” Edwards says.

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