Forget Accountability – Follow These 5 Steps Instead

AccountabilityI don’t like the word accountability. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way for some reason. I think it’s because it assumes the worst about people. When we talk about accountability, it always seems the assumption is a person is incapable of, or unlikely to, follow through on his/her commitments. So we spend a lot of time and energy creating systems, processes, or consequences to make the sure the person is held accountable.

I prefer the word responsibility. To me, responsibility has a positive connotation. It’s starting with the mindset that a person will be responsible if he/she is given the necessary tools and training. If a person is responsible, you don’t have to worry about him/her being accountable. Responsibility breeds accountability. Whereas focusing on accountability is only treating the symptoms of a performance issue, addressing responsibility is treating the root cause.

So how can leaders help their people develop an inherent sense of responsibility? Here’s five steps to get started:

1. Create a motivating work environment – You can’t motivate anyone. (What? Did he just say I can’t motivate anyone? Isn’t that one of my primary responsibilities as a leader?) Yes, I just said that. You can’t motivate anyone. Every person is responsible for his/her own motivational outlook. What you can do is create a work environment that allows your people to maximize their sense of autonomy, increase their level of relatedness with others, and develop competence in their work. Autonomy, relatedness, and competence are the variables that allow a person to be optimally motivated and it’s our jobs as leaders to foster an environment that brings out the best in our people.

2. Let your people take the lead in goal setting as much as possible – Think about your own experience. When have you felt the greatest sense of commitment to a goal? When you created it yourself (or had a hand in it), or when a goal was assigned to you? Most likely it was when you were involved in setting the goal because you had a sense of ownership. It was your goal, not someone else’s. Your people will exhibit more responsibility for accomplishing their goals if they are involved in setting them.

3. Be clear on expectations – If people are going to be responsible, they need to clearly understand the expectations of their commitment. Many times our frustrations with people not being accountable is due to a lack of clear expectations. Make sure people know why the goal is important, what the deadlines are, and what constitutes success. If the situation requires you to follow through with negative consequences, do so. Don’t make hollow threats.

4. Use the right leadership style – Your people have different levels of competence and commitment on each of their goals. It’s your job as a leader to flex your leadership style to provide the proper amount of direction and support your people need to accomplish their goals. If you don’t set your people up to be responsible and successful in achieving their goals, that’s on you, not them. (Hold yourself accountable…errr…responsible).

5. Let go – I’ve written previously about balancing control and responsibility. It’s easy to grab control from people when you see them underachieving or shirking their responsibilities. That doesn’t help your people develop responsibility and it only adds to your stress level and workload. If you’ve properly trained and equipped your people, you need to let go and let them succeed or fail on their own.

Starting with these five steps puts the onus on your people to live up to their responsibilities. It’s up to them to hold themselves accountable…to be responsible. The leadership mindset underpinning these steps is one of trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” Trust your people to rise to the occasion, to be worthy of your trust. Odds are they will prove themselves to be responsible and you won’t have to worry about holding them accountable.

12 Comments on “Forget Accountability – Follow These 5 Steps Instead

  1. Excellent and informative post, thanks very much. Experience and history seem to show that an emphasis on responsibility removes the need for the punitive aspect of accountability.

    I believe you undermined your argument that accountability is largely unnecessary, beginning with tip #4, with “(Hold yourself accountable…errr…responsible).” . I believe it is correct to say that we must hold ourselves (and our teammates) accountable for our behavior, attitudes, etc. That’s where “accountability partners” came from. We all need help. We all need to be held accountable. This isn’t negative, it’s compassion. It’s helping each other succeed.

    • Hi Kathy. Thanks for your insightful feedback.

      It was with tongue in cheek that I referenced holding ourselves accountable, because even in the case of accountability partners that you described, it seems as though we’re starting from the mindset that we need someone else to “make” us be accountable, that it’s only a matter of time before we fail and we need someone to set us back on the straight and narrow.

      I know that it’s probably my own twisted view of accountability that makes me think that way, because I certainly believe in the concept of iron sharpening iron and spurring each other on to good works. I hope that happens more in a supportive, collaborative way rather than a “caught you doing something wrong” approach.

      Take care,


  2. Hi Randy, excellent as usual, agree with all points. What’s fascinating to me though, is when we say ‘my people’, ‘my team’, ‘my staff’ or ‘my employees’. I know what is usually meant by saying this and I understand it but I still feel somewhat uncomfortable with it. We hear over and over again how the term leadership is not just reserved for executives which, when using this terminology, would seem to me to run counter to that mindset. Just a thought and it would be interesting to explore this a little deeper in how one views the people who reports to them either directly or indirectly (unless of course there is nothing there to explore :-).

    • I’m right there with you Murray! I’ve always felt uncomfortable using the words, or hearing other leaders say, “my team,” “my department,” etc. I prefer “we” or “our” language over “I,” “me,” or “mine.” Perhaps I’m just ultra-sensitive to it, but I think leaders should keep the focus on the team, not on themselves.

      As always, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and adding your wisdom to the discussion!


  3. For me, responsibility is an individual dynamic and accountability is a group dynamic.

    • Great insight Randy. I think that’s an interesting way to view those two concepts.

      Thanks for your comments,


  4. All these points can come into play to help create a good work environment but all too many times high levels of trust and freedom are taken advantage of and when a “leader” finally stands up to hold that person accountable for their lack of responsibility, it is usually too late. I find that those who do not care for accountability are the ones who are the most irresponsible.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: