Accountability: Everyone wants it, but few teams have it.

This is mostly because accountability is an easy medicine to dole out but a hard one to take. Most employees in your company can probably point to a few co-workers who are great at making everyone else feel accountable. Having only a few of these people, however, can do more harm than good within the company.

For long-term success, everyone in the entire organization needs to live accountably throughout their daily workloads.

Use Accountability to Empower Employees, Not Blame Them

More companies are starting to embrace accountability as a core value and are making sure all new hires start with this shiny buzzword in mind. The idea, in most cases, is to ingrain accountability into the company culture until it’s practiced on all levels of the organization.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, co-founders of Vega Factor, define company culture as, “a set of processes in an organization that affects the total motivation of its people.” Changes in culture either increase the motivation of employees, or reduce their morale. For a loaded concept like accountability, this core value can actually reduce motivation if it’s not introduced correctly.

Many business owners struggle to explain why they chose accountability for a core value and how it’s demonstrated within the company. Healthcare consultant Mark Graban sees this in hospitals all the time. He’s found that the word “accountability” is often corporate speak for “let’s blame and punish people.”

Accountability often replaces the blame game when things go wrong, but is rarely brought up when everything goes right. According to John Spence, author of Letters to a CEO, this is because there are tons of people who have great ideas, but few who can produce results. When projects aren’t completed, the lack of results is named “accountability” and listed as a key concern from managers across the board.  

Instead of using accountability as a tool to keep your employees in line, start at the top and ask your leadership team to live accountably. Before you talk to your employees or reprint your core values, challenge your managers to embrace accountability for a month and report on what challenges they faced. Once your leadership has built accountability into their daily lives, you can start to bring middle-management and entry-level employees into the new cultural environment.

Craig Cincotta, VP of communications for, explains that accountability isn’t just about the tough calls, but a way to make decisions throughout the day. “When a leader knows they don’t have the right answer for every question, they begin to empower others, and that action alone begins to breed a culture of universal accountability,” he writes.

By living accountably day-to-day, you can give your team the tools to succeed, instead of launching an accountability witch hunt when something goes wrong.


Create a Sense of Purpose and Accountability Before a Project Begins

To embrace accountability, introduce it at the start of a project to build it into your workflow. Before you start doling out tasks, Aad Boot of Leadership Watch recommends providing context to give a sense of purpose to the work.

If your team understands the big-picture benefits of completing their shares of the job, then they’ll be more committed to seeing the project through until the end. Moving forward, your peers will feel as if they’re working toward a common goal instead completing a set of tasks.

Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners, would agree with Boot. He introduces the word “clear” to the discussion on accountability. Before the project begins, the team needs clear expectations, a clear capability to complete the tasks, a clear measurement of success, and a clear channel for feedback. He admits that there should also be clear consequences for failure, but if the team has all of the other tools to succeed, then they shouldn’t have to worry about missing their goals.

Once your team understands the big picture and knows what’s expected of them, create checks along the way to make sure you’re staying on track. Jennifer Lonoff Schiff, of Schiff & Schiff Communications, explains that accountability in project management requires regular follow-up checks, and an escalation strategy in case the project falls off course. If you’re falling behind, then you need to triage what can be completed and have back-up tactics to meet your goals.

Accountability isn’t about preventing failure. It’s making sure you’re prepared with solutions when failures do happen.


Set Checks, Then Step Back to Let Your Employees Work

Some people try to enforce accountability through micromanaging. A boss might send countless follow-ups to make sure a project is getting done, for example, and insist that employees set aside hours for a task. Not only does this frustrate employees, but it also wastes their time and yours.

Randy Pennington, consultant and author of Results Rule!, has explained to clients that working hard and delivering results aren’t the same thing. Accountability is about letting your employees manage their time and do what they think is needed to produce results.

Letting your employees take control of their time and decide what’s needed to complete tasks will empower them to become better leaders.

When John Bell was CEO of Jacobs Suchard, he encouraged employees to lead by example. When an employee asked for a promotion, Bell encouraged him to invest in himself. If he became the best employee in his field, then his actions would speak for themselves, and a promotion would follow. As the employee grew more knowledgeable in his field, he felt more confident in the decisions he made and stood behind his work.

Conversely, employees who aren’t given the tools and freedom to succeed fare significantly worse. Matthew Syed, author of Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, profiled UK social workers following the death of “Baby P” in 2007. The government cracked down on the social worker department to make it more accountable for failure to prevent child abuse.

In the nine years following the child’s death, the industry became so toxic that hundreds of social workers quit the field, costing the British government millions in staffing and increasing employee workloads.The “accountability plan” backfired, and child deaths at the hands of parents increased 25% within a year of the new initiative.

This is why accountability in your office needs to be about empowerment instead of paper-trails. If your employees are constantly covering their backs, then they won’t dare try to go the extra mile.

Conduct a Post-Mortem and Plan for Next Time

Once a project reaches completion, schedule a meeting to review anything that went wrong, and note how your team plans to improve in the future.

In the words of Laci Loew, VP of talent management at Brandon Hall: “Accountability is about the near-wins, not the wins. Accountability is in the striving and the reaching, the journey, the promise of getting there, and the perpetual self-refinement.”

Remember, this post-mortem isn’t the aforementioned witch hunt where your team skewers the co-worker who dropped the ball, but an evaluation of the current systems and a brainstorming session for solutions.

Behavioral statistician Joseph Folkman believes employees with an ability to change have higher accountability ownership rates. This relates both to employees who create change within the organization, and those who are flexible to new changes and processes. It may feel like 20/20 hindsight, but challenging your teams to create new solutions for the project’s problems will prevent them in the future.

This project review doesn’t have to be comfortable. Instead of making sure your employees never face problems again, assign tasks and follow-up assignments.

Cy Wakeman of Reality-Based Leadership says to focus changing what they can control. “Work to bulletproof your people instead of attempting to make their world a cozier place,” Wakeman writes. “Once they stop focusing on what’s happening ‘to’ them and focus on what they can do within their current circumstances to succeed, they will get the results they are looking for.”

Make sure you end the meeting with the ways that you failed, as well. This lets your team know that no one is off the hook for project issues, and there will always be ways that you could have helped them succeed.

Sean Pomeroy, CEO of Visibility Software, explains that the passive voice is one of the fastest ways to kill accountability. When politicians say “mistakes were made,” it takes the blame off of everyone — the speaker included. By taking accountability at the end, you’re part of the solution process, as well.  

Establishing Accountability for Entrepreneurs

While the bulk of this article has focused on accountability in the workplace, entrepreneurs and solopreneurs need to thread accountability into their daily lives, too.

Martin Zwilling is a successful startup investor and offers advice to budding entrepreneurs. He views any victim mentality as the kiss of death. Instead of blaming others or outside forces for their failures, successful entrepreneurs turn inward and find solutions through personal accountability.

Each person needs to find a way to maintain accountability in their business. Rachel Gillett, a reporter for Business Insider, recommends finding an accountability partner who’s going through the same problems you are.

“The main difference between accountability partners and mentors or sponsors is the duality of the relationship — each person holds their partner accountable to their goals,” Gillett writes. So, if you and a peer are both starting your own business, then you can set goals for client acquisition and projects, and meet regularly to make sure you’re hitting your targets.

While Gillett provides a positive solution for self-accountability, business coach Lisa Larter says negative consequences also work. She asked 18 members of a group coaching program to set negative consequences — anything from skipping Starbucks for a month to cancelling Friday night plans  — if they didn’t follow through with their commitments. She found that 83% (all but three) actually accomplished what they set forth.

A lack of accountability in the workplace might put your behind your peers, but a lack of accountability as an entrepreneur will put you out of a job. Creating a solution-based mentality for your problems is the first step to solving them.

Accountability Relies on Teamwork

Unfortunately, even the most accountable employees can become disillusioned and frustrated by their team members.

Charles Duhigg of the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review found that employee and manager time ballooned by more than 50% in American workplaces over the past two decades. This is because groups tended to be more innovative and catch each other’s mistakes. However, even Google’s researchers were unable to determine what made a successful team.

It doesn’t matter how much you try to “optimize” your employees and create the perfect group. Collaborative teamwork depends on emotional responses and human interactions.

Accountability won’t create solutions for all of your problems, but if you use it to prove that “we’re only human,” then it’s a good start to break down team barriers.  


images by:
StartupStockPhotos, skeeze

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