The Accountability Conundrum | How do we hold people accountable?

The Accountability Conundrum | How do we hold people accountable?

A common theme in the conversations I have with managers and leaders is accountability. “How do we hold people accountable?” 

This question is most often sparked when targets and goals have been missed. Frustrated, the default response becomes to create rewards and punishments – yes the age old carrot and stick method which seems like the most obvious solution. After all, that’s the solution we have been taught and conditioned with in the workplace for a century. Old habits die hard. 

In this feature I don’t want to go into the science and research as to why rewards and punishments fail. I can save that for another time, and instead encourage you to read Drive by Dan Pink, where he gives clear examples that over the long term, carrots and sticks fall short of increasing motivation. 

Instead, I want to focus on what we can shift in our company cultures in order to increase accountability; because it isn’t just about motivation. I want to offer up alternative strategies which can release us from the default, and help create a culture of accountability that becomes a choice.  My hope is that you’ll defer from going straight to discipline and punishments, and realise that there is a better, more human way that we can connect and relate to each other when things get difficult. 

This is by no means a blueprint. It’s about realising that we do have a choice when it comes to how we build teams and work together.

What does holding people accountable mean?

To set the groundwork for accountability to be a strong part of your company culture, let’s hone in on exactly what it means for someone to take accountability. 

Accountability means that people are responsible for their actions, decisions and performance. It involves being answerable to yourself and others when you’ve agreed upon goals, standards or procedures.  

In an environment of accountability, each individual is expected to take ownership of their work and outcomes; whether it be positive or negative, and to transparently communicate the progress of those goals. 

When it comes to holding people accountable, it means ensuring people are aware of, and understand their responsibilities and the natural consequences of their actions.

Confusing accountability with control

As I shared earlier, a lack of accountability is often faced with a carrot and sticks mentality. Reward the good, and punish the bad. But another reaction to controlling accountability is to switch into micro-management tendencies, where we begin to put in all kinds of measurements and check-ins to force accountability. But this isn’t the self-driven accountability we want from people, this is just control. And the more rigid and controlling we become, the more people feel constrained and unable to perform. 

Being in control is important, but there’s a difference between control and being controlling. 

Unnecessary control systems begin to make accountability a burden, damaging trust and even the results you were so longing to see improve. 

If you find yourself with the need to begin implementing control mechanisms, it’s a clear sign that now is the time to start looking at your wider culture.

Strategies and approaches to create accountability

Shifting mindset

When you’ve discovered that a lack of accountability has taken place, how does that feel to you? – As a leader I want you to lean into the thoughts and feelings that come up. It might be frustration, anger, disappointment. Get it out on paper, along with the thoughts that you have. 

Now the truth is, this is just how we feel. A reaction. It is not reality. 

Too often, we walk into situations in an emotionally intense state, which clouds our judgement and our ability to be empathetic. We see things in the heat of the moment, rather than taking space to move through these feelings and come into a gathering with mindfulness and curiosity. 

In an accountability challenge, we first must shift our mindset from one of blame, to that of assuming positive intent. Because when that red mist falls, all that we can think about is that this individual is dropping the ball on purpose. But rarely do people want to come to work to do a bad job or fail. Quite the opposite. 

As the saying goes, “if you’re in your head, you’re dead.” – We can’t hold each other accountable in a safe and supportive way, if we’re stuck with our minds in judgement and criticism.  

Clear roles & responsibilities

Who is actually responsible for what?

What I’ve witnessed in many companies is that accountability isn’t clear in the first place. There are assumptions and expectations – but nowhere are there any clear distinctions of who’s responsible for what. 

In many traditional organisations we rely on outdated job descriptions to steer people in their respective roles, but these are never updated, and commonly not true for the actual work that’s getting done. 

The first step in building greater accountability is to ensure that everyone knows with absolute certainty exactly what role they are playing, and the key responsibilities that sit within that role. 

With the teams I work with, we work on defining roles and responsibilities, to ensure that people have absolute clarity on their expectations, and can co-create their goals and targets. 

Regardless of their job title, they may be playing many roles that others are not aware of. By creating clear roles and responsibilities framework, and coming back to it regularly, you can ensure that everyone is always tapped into what work needs to be done. 

Roles and responsibilities should be something that is clear for everyone to see. Hosting these details in a shared space, not only helps people to be constantly aware and keep track of their responsibilities and goals; but also have transparency on the other roles people are playing. 

Co-creating the goals and targets is vital here as well. You don’t want unrealistic goals being set from up high with no collaboration with the team member who is trying to achieve them. The goals should be set in dialogue with team members so that the goals are not too easy, but enough of a challenge that people feel driven. 

Whether you have traditional hierarchical structure, or operate in a more networked manner, you can use roles and responsibilities to create clear expectations for everyone. 

The questions everyone should be able to answer after determining roles and responsibilities are these; 

Is everyone clear on what they are responsible for? 

Do we all have clear goals? 

The capability gap

One thing I find helpful when doing the roles and responsibilities exercise is that we start to understand more about people’s true capabilities. 

Accountability also falters not because that individual doesn’t want to take ownership, but because they’re struggling, and what’s been set is beyond their capability.  

When running through the roles and responsibilities, you can ask yourselves as team members what skills that person needs to meet the expectations. Identifying the capability gap, then provides an opportunity to provide greater levels of support, mentorship and training. 

If people don’t feel confident in the role they’re playing, and have clear expectations; we’re setting them up for failure, and that isn’t an accountability problem, but a culture problem. 

Boundaries and rules

Earlier I mentioned how easy it is to fall into the trap of creating rigid control mechanisms and procedures in order to stimulate accountability. Well, here is where we start to create some control without being controlling. 

We all need boundaries and rules of engagement. Just like when we’re playing a game. And work is no different. We need clear boundaries and expectations, so that within the boundaries we have room for freedom and choice. 

What we commonly see, is rules imposed on us by others. Which either don’t work for our situation, or haven’t taken into account any needs of the group. This is where co-creating your boundaries and rules becomes a key piece in the accountability puzzle. 

Through the co-creation of boundaries we set expectations, and we make a social agreement of what’s good, and what’s not so good when we’re working together. This not only helps to create a group agreement, but means it’s less necessary for a manager or leader to step in, because the accountability is held by the agreement. 

As a team you should have your own set of boundaries and rules that you’ve co-created. These are not the policies and procedures of the wider company – but what you as a team need from each other in order to work together.


Ok, now for the uncomfortable truth that we all like to avoid. Feedback. 

Feedback is a fundamental part of holding people accountable, but we rarely engage in it. And I get it; it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, and quite literally it makes our brains scared because we’re putting ourselves in perceived risk. 

We tend to leave feedback to appraisals and performance reviews; which means feedback is outdated and not helpful for the present situation. 

If you have an allergic reaction to giving feedback, start off by talking about the topic of feedback with your team. Get it out in the open and come up with a shared way that you feel feedback should be raised. Some people will say they like getting direct feedback the moment something happens, others may have a preference to have feedback in private and be given in a softer way. Learning about each other’s preferences for feedback can be one way of easing into building a feedback culture in your team.

How can people be held accountable if you’re always saving them?

Knowing when to step in and when to step back as a leader is fine art and one that needs to be practised if you want accountability to flourish. 

As managers or senior leaders, there is a tendency to save people; whether it’s from the work, or from having to have difficult conversations. But this breeds a culture where team members become like children, always going to the adult to be saved. 

I call this superhero syndrome. We love helping others and problem-solving is our superpower. But the shadow side of this way of being is that people no longer take responsibility or agency over their situations, and quickly become victims waiting for the superhero to take charge again.

What I’m trying to get at is this. How can people take responsibility of their actions, behaviours and goals – if you keep taking over? 

I’m not telling you to abdicate here. Instead, what I want you to pick-up on is defining the difference between supporting and offering help when it’s needed, and when you default to taking over. 

As much as possible, and where applicable, we need to foster a culture where leaders are the coaches and supporters, and on the rare occasion the ones who do help and check-in. Like I said before, it’s a fine art. Knowing when to step in and knowing when to step back. I think this quote from Karin Tenelius in her book Moose Heads on the Table puts it well – “If you are the founder, CEO, or leader in your team or organisations, you are the biggest obstacle to their success.” 

Rhythm and routines

Most meetings are ineffective, yet the rhythm and routine of well-structured and purposeful meetings can strengthen accountability.  

Take for example a general check-in meeting to see how work is progressing. From what I’ve witnessed, too often these meetings are one of people simply reporting where they are. What’s been done, and what’s not been done. And then the manager will be ask why certain things haven’t been done. Does this feel true for you and your team? 

Now there is nothing specifically wrong with this meeting set-up. However, we can take it up a level. First of all, we can ensure that we’re addressing any tensions or blockers – this is a moment in the meeting where team members can raise challenges or concerns about a project or task. (“Is there anything in the way for you to achieve this?” ) 

We can also create a better rhythm of monthly accountability meetings. If we have those roles and responsibilities in place, we will also know what success looks like, which means having that monthly team check-in provides space to ensure that those roles and responsibilities can be carried out, and if not, can be adjusted as necessary. 

The accountability conundrum

As you can see, accountability isn’t a quick fix, and even this strategy in itself makes a few assumptions about your existing culture. But there is a clear need for many companies to do the deeper work on their culture if they want to spend less time and money resorting to outdated methods to enhance accountability. 

When accountability isn’t present, there is something missing in your culture. It could be that people don’t know what they’re working towards, or how they work impacts the company. It could be that the very work they do they dislike. There are a myriad of reasons that a lack of accountability can fester. The first step is discovering the cause and working from there.


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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.