We all want to work in an environment where people deliver on their commitments.  In fact, the presence of accountability is a key reason why companies have a high belonging score.  When an organization stands for a noble purpose, has a compelling mission and vision, and noteworthy values, it is important for leaders to create a culture of accountability where people hold themselves and each other responsible for delivering on these promises.

Accountability can often get a bad rap.  Traditional accountability might have been viewed as more punitive; when people did not hit their targets, there were consequences.   This often conjures up feelings of blame, shame, and guilt which triggered them to shut down and feel discouraged.  While accountability can be a little bit of an uncomfortable process at times, when it is done right, it looks more like a supportive rather than a disciplinary process and can be a morale booster.  Founder & CEO Peter Bregman says, “Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong.  It’s not a confession; it is about delivering on a commitment.  It’s a responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks.  It’s taking the initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.”  People can learn to love accountability when it is about helping to achieve better results, improve their performance, and get recognition for their tremendous efforts.

Accountability is necessary at all levels of the organization.  Executives at the top of the org chart cannot be accountable unless the people who report to them also follow through on their commitments.  Leaders play an essential role in inspiring others to advance the organizational goals without micromanaging or using a pure command-and-control approach since it is an ineffective relic that does not promote people’s greatest work.  The best accountability can address the WHAT and WHY of the work by providing a framework with expectations, boundaries, and consequences. It can also handle the HOW by granting autonomy to people to pursue what they think is best to achieve the agreed-upon results. For example, a person should know what exactly they are building and why they are building it through co-creating the broad strokes with their leaders but can make numerous mini decisions in executing the work.

Some of the best managers support, mentor, and coach people for self-accountability; they are interested in providing maximum effort and engagement to achieve desired results, are receptive to feedback and improvement, and remain resourceful as they aim to achieve solutions.  Even more than keeping commitments, self-accountability is a considerable driver of happiness and engagement.  In Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, he explains how well-being and happiness are correlated to the level of accountability people take for their lives; it is a prime motivator for their evolution.

Why Accountability Fails:

Research shows that many managers, even senior ones, are surprisingly weak in this area.  According to one study in the Harvard Business Review, 46% of high-level managers were rated poorly on the measure “holds people accountable for when they don’t deliver.”  Data offered by Tom Starner in HR Dive shows that 82% of managers acknowledge they have limited to no ability to hold others accountable successfully and 91% of employees would say that effectively holding others accountable is one of their company’s top leadership-development needs. 

It’s not working from an employee perspective either.  Gallup found that only 14% of employees feel their performance is managed in a way that motivates them, 26% get feedback less than once per year, 21% feel their performance metrics are within their control, and 40% feel as if their manager holds them accountable for goals they set.  

Let’s explore the top reasons for the lack of accountability:

1. Organizational challenges.  A lack of accountability can sometimes be unintentional if it results from underlying issues, such as unclear roles and responsibilities, limited resources, poor strategy, or unrealistic goals.  This is why some leaders report not knowing exactly how to get people to be more accountable for results if they have a lack of organizational clarity or if the goalpost is constantly shifting.

2. Leadership challenges.  Before pointing fingers elsewhere, you want to check in with yourself to ensure you are not part of the problem.  Have you set the person up for success?  Have you defined clear goals and provided an accountability plan from the beginning of who will do what by when?  Have you given feedback along the way and monitored metrics?  Have you addressed issues and not let them balloon by ignoring them?  If the answer is no to these questions, it will be hard to hold people accountable when some of the responsibility may lie with you.

3. System Changes.  Leaders sometimes find system changes impacting accountability.  Maybe the norm was to grant leniency and look the other way on small things.  Now, if the message is to impose stricter standards, your direct reports could be dismayed if you do not communicate the recalibrated expectations.  How could they be rated a 3 / 5 when their whole career, they have been a 4 or at the top?  They may wonder if they are suddenly a 3 because only a certain amount of 4s can be granted.   These are painful conclusions that the person can draw about themselves and their boss, so a manager may be nervous about turning the dial up on accountability if they do not have good reasoning behind the system changes and how they will improve the culture.

Most companies would admit that they have an accountability problem.Leaders in particular struggle with it because there are underlying organizational issues or a lack of confidence and experience in their leadership.  Accountability does not have to be complicated; it can be a positive and productive experience that builds morale and excitement and contributes to an incredible culture when it is done right.

Quotes of the day: “Understanding the true meaning of accountability makes us strong and enables us to learn” -Sameh Elsayed

“On good teams, coaches hold players accountable, on great teams players hold players accountable.” ― Joe Dumars

Q: What is your biggest challenge when it comes to accountability?  Comment and share below; we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog in this series 2/3 will focus on setting up a system for accountability] 

As a Leadership and Executive Coach, I partner with others to help with all kinds of accountability systems, contact me to learn more.

How do you maintain a culture of accountability that inspires people’s best?