Accountability is a major topic with leaders who want to be high performing because it fundamentally impacts the functionality of their business. Why? 

The reason is simple: 

If the leader doesn’t create a culture of Accountability, the team won’t either. 

And if the team isn’t being held accountable, it will directly affect not only the ability to deliver and the quality of work. It will also affect retention rates, company culture and overall job performance and satisfaction.

When I ask clients what comes to mind when they hear “Accountability”, you can tell from the graphic above their answers have either a positive or negative association: everything from productivity, reliability and follow through to negative, critical feedback and fear.

Why Accountability is Challenging

Accountability is crucial for teams and is almost always one of the biggest areas every leader needs to improve.  However, improving accountability is challenging because: 

  1. Leaders rarely know what it truly means: There are few leaders who understand what it means to hold themselves, their leaders, their teams (and kids) accountable and consistently model it in a high performing way. I have had many CEOs and other executives who privately ask, “What exactly do you mean by holding people accountable?”
  2. Leaders often avoid underperformers: Every leader focuses on talent and there are generally 1-3 people who are not fully delivering, or there are unresolved conflicts between team members. Often, the leader doesn’t want to deal with the situation (or conflict) directly, as I wrote about in the previous post about conflict and why leaders avoid it. 
  3. NGS: “Nice Guy/Gal” Syndrome: I made up this term with a long-term client and have since used it as an archetype with many clients. They are someone people admire, adore and respect. They are known to be people leaders. It is in their DNA to care deeply. And, what got them here, isn’t going to get them there. Their strength of caring is overused (what Kim Scott calls “Ruinous Empathy”), and they are unwilling to have tough conversations. When people have NGS, they often delegate too little, do too much or let people undeliver or exhibit bad behavior. Sound familiar?  Good news – I have seen about half the CEO’s shift their accountability immediately when we shine the light on it, because it becomes obvious. Those who do not are usually needing to focus more on conflict avoidance.
  4. Company culture: Many companies have a “polite” or “underground” culture that emanates from the top (usually the CEO / C-suite is conflict averse and it permeates throughout). The analogy “a goldfish grows to the size of its pond” rings true here. 

When the company DNA embeds “high nice (or toxic) / low accountable” culture, high performers can only survive when they focus on their own teams and do their best to influence key stakeholders who are willing to engage. The famous book “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast” reminds us that culture wins and high performers can rarely impact this dynamic. 

This week alone I met with four leaders in this quandary. How are they handling this? 

  • Influence where they can, creating boundaries and making requests directly or indirectly
  • Hold themselves and key stakeholders accountable as much as possible 
  • Wait for leadership to wake up or change (rare!) 
  • Weigh their love of job / company with the dysfunctional environment and choose how long they will tolerate it. (A study revealed that 1in 5 high performers are likely to leave their jobs within the next six months—and less than half are satisfied with their jobs.)

So, What is Accountability?

The word “Accountability” is defined as:

  1. The obligation or willingness of an individual or organization to account for one’s actions / activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner;
  2. Stems from late Latin accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon).

That’s all fine and good, how does this translate to practical action? 

If you take away the emotion and simply look at accountability as an act, being accountable means you are responsible for your word:

If you promised to complete X by Y date, you do it. 

At least, you renegotiate a new (workable) date / deliverable. 

And if you don’t, you take responsibility. 

In future posts we will cover what “Enterprise Accountability” means. 

Spoiler alert: leaders who wear the “Enterprise hat” operate as if they are the CEO, shareholders, or in privately-held companies, a family member, not “just” a functional business leader. They make decisions and play at stake for the entire organization, even if it means they give up self-interest in support of the greater whole. 

Where to Start for Accountability? 

At minimum, you have a candid conversation with someone and share consequences of no change. That will likely create at least compliance. To do that, you need to at least have the level 1 conversation of naming the issue and stating the impact of what’s at stake.

You might see this as a mathematical formula. (This is my first pass at the equation – please provide input if you see it differently!) 

Accountability = (Candor + Negative Consequences)

Where to Start for High Performance Accountability?

This starts with first assessing Trust. In most cases, trust is low, so you need to start there (when possible). Check out my previous post on Why trust is critical to the success of your team. 


High Performance Accountability = (Trust x Candor) + Negative Consequences

In other words, if you have Trust that you multiply with candid conversations and add consequences, you are more likely to develop the other person’s commitment versus simply their compliance (candor + consequences).

Your level of Trust will determine how effectively, efficiently and positively you will be able to hold others Accountable.

Ask Yourself: 

  • Where do I see lack of Accountability in others, and in myself?
  • What is my level of trust?
  • What is one relationship that needs my attention? 

In failing to hold others Accountable, leaders allow their teams to fall short of their true potential, which affects the entire company and often bottom-line results. 

My next posts on this topic will be Why Accountability is Rare and Steps of How to Hold Others Accountable where I’ll give you the most common beliefs that get in leaders’ way, the tools to use and the key behaviors to practice. Stay tuned.

It is one thing to understand accountability in theory. Successfully implementing it into your day-to-day is another, more hands-on task. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this article!

Yours in practice, 



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