By Craig Hickman (@HickmanCraig), Futurist and Senior Vice President of New Product Development

Employee engagement is fostered, not forced, and it derives from a sense of ownership over one's work. Organizations that encourage employees to take ownership in everything they do are able to hold onto employees longer, even retain highest performers, by maintaining higher levels of engagement, productivity, and satisfaction.

Here's the thing: it's much easier to cultivate engagement and ownership from the beginning of an employee's tenure than it is to correct an apathetic attitude later. With some studies showing that global employee engagement levels have sunk to thirteen percent, apathy is common in an economy where job-hopping is increasingly the norm.

So, what's the quickest path to positive employee engagement? Understanding responsibility versus accountability--and how they work together to boost engagement across an organization.

Accountability Is Cultivated

Many associate the term "accountability" with someone assigning you a task--and holding you to it. But this kind of punitive reading is counterproductive to the pursuit of employee engagement. For an engaged employee, accountability is a matter of personal investment and ownership. When all employees are invested in the same vision of the company's success, the natural result is greater cohesion and alignment toward Key Results, along with a happier, healthier office culture.

A culture of accountability fosters self-reliance and confidence. Employees don't need to be micromanaged when accountability permeates an organization at every level. Rather than managers bestowing tasks for employees to belabor, an accountable employee sees responsibilities as challenges to meet and problems to solve.

This approach also pushes employees to weigh the value they bring to the pursuit of larger company goals. When employees are encouraged to take ownership of the company's Key Results, when they know the part they play has a larger impact, they engage in their responsibilities with more vigor and energy.

Responsibility Is Imposed

In contrast to accountability, a responsibility is something that is given to someone; a job title, a list of duties, and even something as simple as showing up to work on time are all considered responsibilities.

Naturally, managers expect employees to live up to their responsibilities, but that should not be the only standard by which to measure employee success--much less employee engagement. A mere job description is simply not going to engage and energize any employee. With little control over whether an employee completes a task or meets a goal, successful leaders understand that real motivation comes from within; they spend time and energy shaping a culture that values ownership over crossing to-dos off a checklist.

Cultivating an Accountable, Responsible Culture

Foster personal accountability from the start with these three tenets of strong leadership.

  • Provide Mentorship

Some employees might be able to hit the ground running on day one. However, many will not, and even those few who find success quickly may eventually run into roadblocks that impede their progress. Good leaders make themselves available to reiterate deliverables, touch base with employees, and collaborate on a better way forward that aligns an employee's strengths with the company's goals.

  • Seek and Incorporate Feedback

Encouraging transparent discourse during team meetings and other daily functions gives employees a voice, brings new ideas to your attention, and provides a platform on which new solutions can be conceived, tested, and refined. Great leadership is about understanding and activating the strengths of the people you lead. Consistently seeking, giving, and incorporating feedback unifies the team's strengths and directs them toward common goals. A valued, listened-to employee is almost always an engaged one.

  • Encourage Coaching

Creating a great culture is about cohesion, alignment, and sustainable standards. Encouraging longer-standing employees to coach new ones gives momentum to a cycle of engagement and team accountability. Offering coaching is also a great way for new hires to gain an understanding of the inner workings of the company, internalize Key Results, and feel included and valued from the start. Receiving an in-depth orientation of specific job responsibilities and company procedures allows for fresh perspectives to flourish among informed employees.

Creating Results and Shaping Change

The quickest path to employee engagement is not necessarily the expected one: personal accountability. While a responsible employee does the work, an accountable employee finds meaning in the work. A culture of accountability fosters self-reliance and confidence. It frees employees up to focus on things that matter instead of the problems that surface when everyone is pointing fingers and blaming each other. Engaged employees understand how their work is connected to Key Results, that what they do matters. When you communicate and reinforce their value to the company, you set them up for success--and you as a leader, and as an organization, benefit as a result.

Craig Hickman, author of seventeen books including bestsellers The Oz Principle, Creating Excellence, Mind of a Manager Soul of a Leader, and The Strategy Game, is a Harvard MBA with honors, former CEO of Headwaters Technology Innovation (HW:NYSE), founder of the consulting firm Management Perspectives Group, and currently Futurist and Senior Vice President of New Product Development at Partners In Leadership, the premier provider of Accountability and Culture Shaping services worldwide.