Accountability and fun are not mutually exclusive at work

I met recently with an enthusiastic and capable entrepreneur. She has every attribute for success including energy, experience, ideas, desire, persistence and capital.

She asked me a common question: “Can I have a good/fun place to work that also has a high degree of accountability?” She seemed to view accountability as some kind of fun sponge.

If “fun” is defined as a workplace without accountability, then the answer is no. If the only way to have a fun and supportive culture is to avoid measurement, then accountability is out. If fun means optionality and excessive individual choice, eventually the wheels will lock up on this business. If fun means “everyone likes me as much as they like each other,” I say go get a dog instead.

If “accountability” means catching people doing the wrong thing, sink-or-swim management, poor communication, or, worse, avoiding the conversation until it all explodes, it will be hard to have much fun.

Mishandled accountability pours water on fun, and unlimited fun can defeat accountability. But fun and accountability are not mutually exclusive.

Think of the best mentor or manager you ever had in a job. Did you have fun with them? That could mean actual laughs and good times, or just the fact that you learned from them and looked forward to future interactions.

Did this manager or mentor hold you accountable? Whether you reported to them, or whether they prodded you toward good decisions, did they reinforce your good behaviors and coach you on your problems?

Of course they did. That accountability, wrapped in a context of genuine interest in your future and your success, are precisely why you respected them. It is why they are your “best ever.”

Some employers believe fun is intrinsically good for the workplace. If workplace fun and social events create shared, positive experiences and build relationships, they are probably right. If the fun is unwanted, inappropriate to the group or too controlled, they may be wrong.

The most effective and welcomed fun in any workplace is the genuine reward for hard work. Yes, the same accountability that produced the right results in the right way can be the reason that a fun event, extra time off or other reward is truly appreciated. When fun has an element of thanks, it is more rewarding and culture-building than fun by itself.

Whether fun is explicitly tied to goal attainment, or just part of a culture where accountability and fun go together, tying fun to the work will increase the perceived value of fun.

So, to that very capable entrepreneur, stop thinking of fun as separate from (or opposite to) accountability. Do not confuse employee fun with your desire to be liked, which may prevent you from creating accountability. Fun is about them and about the work, not about you.

Clear direction, teaching, appreciation (and correction) lead to good results. Those very same results magnify the value of fun.

Fun and accountability make every workplace better when they work together.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit