Now Trending: Accountability

Mention the word accountability in organizations today and you’re likely to get some uncomfortable fidgeting, maybe even some rolling of the eyes. Why is that? In part it’s because of how accountability is typically positioned in organizations – it tends to only get talked about when things are going poorly. When accountability is discussed within this negative context, it becomes more about placing blame than anything else. No wonder people become uncomfortable when the “A” word is brought up – no one wants to wear what feels like a scarlet letter. But accountability is absolutely essential to achieving better performance and organizational success. This is not your mother’s version of accountability – it’s time to change the context and mindset when we talk about accountability.


If the context for accountability continues to primarily negative, organizations that attempt to increase accountability will find that their efforts have the exact opposite effect than what is intended. Imagine you’re sitting in a team meeting and the group’s leader begins the conversation with the words, “I think we need to have a discussion around accountability.” How will team members react? Because of the negative connotations typically associated with accountability, you’re likely to observe a “run for cover” or people gearing up for explaining why whatever’s wrong is not their fault.

It’s important to change the context for accountability from negative to positive. You already know how important accountability is in a team project scenario. When the team comes up with its action plan to address a business goal, everyone expects tasks to be assigned to them, and for which they will be held accountable. That’s both normal and laudable. After all, without accountability it doesn’t matter how hard you try to accomplish a goal, the effort is doomed to fail.

Instead of accountability as a reactionary damage control and blame-placing activity, it’s better to emphasize the personal responsibility aspect of accountability. But then it’s also incumbent upon the organization and its leaders to make sure that people have the tools and resources they need to succeed. In this sense, accountability is a two-way street of both personal responsibility and organizational responsibility, and there needs to be clear commitment on both sides of that equation to strive for excellence and success.

In part, accountability is an uphill battle because you’re trying to change a person’s mindset. If a person believes that they are 80% responsible for their own success and only 20% depends on factors outside their control, they’re going to work hard and get great results. It’s the people who don’t clearly link their own results to their own efforts that make excuses, blame others, curse their bad luck, and so on. You have to try to get people to understand that accountability is not about culpability; it’s about responsibility, for them and the organization.

Here are some strategies that can help your organization get accountability right:

  • Clearly define the results you want people to deliver. Clear expectations are the key to success in accountability. The Pygmalion effect shows that people will generally try to fulfill what is expected of them, so be clear about what you want.
  • Keep goals SMART. Your expectations must not be too low or people won’t bother, but they also must not be too high or impossible to attain. Going too far in either direction will lose people rather than hold them accountable. It’s a good idea to keep goals for results SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), but they can also require that people stretch a little.
  • Engage in a cultural change process. If a lack of accountability is endemic to your organization, then a major cultural shift is in order. Changing a deeply embedded cultural characteristic is no easy task, but it can be done. You’ll want to select a solid change model to guide the process, such as Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, the Andersons’ Change Leader Roadmap, or the 4D Appreciative Inquiry Change Model developed by Srivastva, Fry and Cooperrider. You might even need to bring in outside consultants with expertise in this area.

By using strategies such as the ones listed above, organizations can begin to reframe accountability away from its traditionally negative connotations and towards a more proactive, positive context that will set the stage for personal and organizational success.



February 2, 2015   Updated :March 14, 2015   accountability, company values, transparency   

One response to “Now Trending: Accountability”

  1. […] written three previous “Now Trending” articles on honesty, generosity, and accountability. These are important posts because what I’m doing is laying out a business agenda for the 21st […]

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