8 Ways Engineering Leaders Improve Workplace Accountability and Ownership

One of the biggest struggles I’ve found people leaders face is getting employees to take ownership and accountability for their work. I’ve learned a thing or two in my conversations with Engineering leaders and want to share some of their tactics, as well as the strategies at SoapBox that we use to encourage our teams to own what they bring to the table:

1 Write down the expectations you have of them and that they can have of you

This is where all employee-manager relationships need to start. A piece of paper (or digital doc) with the 10-20 things you will do for them and they can expect from you. Here are some to start with:

  • How you like to communicate
  • The level of project detail you want to be kept up to date on
  • What areas you want to help with and where you want them to take the lead
  • How you want them to close the loop (e.g., if someone emails you both)
  • Level of candour/straight talk you both should have
  • Working hours and life schedule stuff (family priorities, gym etc)
  • What types of new ideas you desire
  • How personal you want to be in your relationship

A great example of expectation setting is from Heather Foeh, VP Customer Experience at LookBookHQ.

2 Provide context and rationale behind decisions

You have access to information and conversations that your employees don’t. This gives you the context with which to make decisions and set the course for the team. Sharing this information enables your employees to make decisions and be more autonomous.

The challenging bit is remembering to do this regularly. Here’s what I suggest: have a standing agenda item in your team meetings and one-on-ones to share the latest news and information. This way you’re forced to rack your brain for the important conversations you’re having that your team needs to know about.

3 Keep track of what people are working on and review it regularly

This is where your inner project manager comes into play. By having a structure around who is doing what and revisiting that regularly, you won’t feel like you’re nagging or bothering your team when you check in. They then have the chance to ask questions or push timelines (i.e., own what they are working on). Reviewing our Instagantt project plan weekly has been a gamechanger for my team!

Bonus here is if you tie your team’s tasks to overall goals. If X activity doesn’t contribute to Y goal, then you should you really be doing it?

4 Proactively tell your employees you want them to ask questions

Explicitly inviting your employees to ask questions is hugely powerful. I spoke with one leader who said this was his biggest learning from the past year. He always thought himself an open and approachable person. It wasn’t until his employee didn’t share something and then when asked why stated: “well, you never said I could share it”.

5 Have a standing agenda item for questions and issues

Open communication is so important I’m dedicating two sections to it! Being clear that you are there to answer questions is a start. You then need to follow-up with a regular communication pattern that creates room to ask those questions and share issues.

There is no magical decision making rubric to give your employees so that they never come to you again with a question. Your job is to be helpful and available to them. Create a repeating agenda item in your one-on-ones and team meetings for questions or issues they have on what they are working on. It’s that simple!

6 Don’t give your employees the answer

When an employee does come to you with something they need help on, use the opportunity to build their problem solving and decision making skills.

Most questions I’m asked, I turn back to the employee and get them to answer it first. I then ask further questions to prompt them in the right direction. It takes a few extra minutes but it generates a world of benefits. This fosters confidence in getting to an answer on their own and also gets them collaborating with others to figure things out instead of always coming to you to do their bidding with other teams.

7 Point out when they are taking the kind of ownership you desire

Reinforcing and celebrating the behaviour you want will get you on the same page, faster. This can be done simply through a shout-out in a team meeting or sending them a text at the end of the day. When employees know they’re doing things right, they’ll continue on that path.

In our weekly Leadership Team meeting, we have a standing agenda item to call out employee wins and then share them in our weekly All Hands. Setting up this kind of cadence is a great way to make sure that your positive reinforcement consistently happens.

8 Remember, your employee is NOT you

No matter how much you communicate, your employee will not be exactly like you.

One piece of sage advice I learned from a fellow CEO was to evaluate what my employee does not how. If they take a different approach but land at the same result, that’s great. I also learned that I can’t necessarily expect them to do everything I do. This is where we go back up to the top and work through the ways I build their ownership and skills of what needs to get done.



Many of the learnings above happen by creating the right habits. That’s why we created SoapBox, to help managers and employees have the right communication habits in the places they connect most: one-on-ones and team meetings. You can try it out free, forever, here!