Moving from accountability to ownership

Learning the difference between management favourite, accountability, and ownership can make all the difference in nursing careers.

The management buzzword of the 1990s was ‘empowerment’. There were dozens of books and articles on the subject, and managers attended innumerable workshops and implemented seemingly endless programmes on how to ‘empower’ their people.

In a culture of ownership, there is a ‘proceed-until-apprehended’ commitment to doing the right thing. Picture: iStock

One does not hear this word so much any more, partly because we’ve learned that empowerment is an inside job; no one can empower you but you. Trying to ‘empower’ a person who believes him or herself to be disempowered is liking trying to push a string up a hill.

Over the past 15 years, we have been hearing a new management buzzword: ‘accountability’. It’s as if managers are saying: ‘We tried empowerment and it didn’t work, so now we’re going to hold people accountable with rewards and punishments.’ 

Forms of torture

Now we talk about cracking the whip and holding people’s feet to the fire. As an aside, it’s interesting that the metaphors we use for accountability are drawn from medieval forms of torture.

Unfortunately, there is a significant downside risk to fostering a culture that has an excessive focus on accountability. As Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes write in their book, The Innovation Paradox, while a culture of accountability can achieve immediate results, ‘in the long run… accountability encourages a culture of evasion, denial, and finger pointing’. One need look no farther than the recent scandals in the US banking sector.

In today’s turbulent and hypercompetitive world, it is no longer enough to hold people accountable with carrots and sticks.

Building a culture by holding people accountable will never take an organisation from good to great. For that to happen it requires a ‘culture of ownership’, in which people do not need bosses to hold them accountable because they hold themselves to this standard.

Ownership culture

In a culture of ownership, there is leadership in every corner, not just in the corner office. In such a culture, there is a ‘proceed-until-apprehended’ commitment to doing the right thing.

In our book, Building a Culture of Ownership in Healthcare, we describe three essential qualities: people are emotionally positive, they are self-empowered and they are fully engaged.

When your people reflect these qualities, you do not need to crack the whip because they will motivate themselves to do the right thing. You do not need to hold people’s feet to the fire when they’re willing to walk across hot coals on their own.

In the Analects of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher states: ‘To see what is right and not to do it is cowardice.’ It takes courage for a leader to promote a culture of ownership where people are encouraged to proceed until apprehended; it takes courage for employees to take the initiative without waiting to be told to proceed and without fear of being apprehended. But this is the courage it takes to make the leap from good to great.

About the authors

Joe Tye is chief executive officer and head coach of Values Coach Inc.


Bob Dent is chief operating officer and chief nursing officer of Midland Memorial Hospital, Texas, US, and president-elect of the American Organization of Nurse Executives.

Joe Tye and Bob Dent’s new book, Building a Culture of Ownership in Healthcare, is published by Sigma Theta Tau International

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