If You Want Employee Accountability, Keep Them IN the Box

“We want you to act like owners.” How many times have you heard that phrase thrown around in organizations? As a leader, you’ve probably uttered those words, or similar ones, many times in the past. We all want employees who live and breathe accountability. It’s one of the key factors that set high performers apart from low or average ones.

We want employees to act like owners, but many times we discourage their accountability by treating them like renters. How so? We discourage accountability when we micromanage. Telling people what to do, how to do it, and insisting they do it our way thwarts their autonomy. We also prevent accountability when we shelter people from the consequences of their actions. We’ve let the pendulum swing too far to the side of wanting everyone to feel good about themselves no matter their level of performance. Everyone should get a trophy just for giving a good effort, right?

So as a result, we have developed employees who have the mindset of renters, not owners. You know what that looks like, right? The employee waits around for the boss to make the decision, rather than stepping out on their own initiative. They do a decent enough job, but often nothing spectacular; just enough to get by. They are content to point out problems, but don’t take the extra step to solve the problem themselves or offer suggestions on how to do so.

In their new book, Counter Mentor Leadership—How to Unlock the Potential of the 4-Generation Workplace, my friends Kelly Riggs and Robby Riggs define accountability in a straight-forward way: the process of taking a personal interest in—owning—the results, as opposed to making excuses for mistakes and looking for something or someone to blame. They emphasize that accountability is an attitude, one that is cultivated, modeled, and instilled in others by a good leader.

The Riggs duo suggest leaders can help employees foster a mindset of accountability by putting them back in the box.

Whoa! Wait a minute! Did you say back IN the box? Yes, that’s right. Back IN the box…the Freedom Box.

The Freedom Box is about setting a perimeter within which the employee has complete autonomy to roam. The size of the box is proportional to the employee’s individual competence and commitment to take ownership of producing results. By definition, the box will be a bit different for each person. Using language from our SLII® model, on particular goals or tasks some people are Development Level 4 (D4) Self Reliant Achievers (highly competent and committed), while others are Development Level 1 Enthusiastic Beginners (low competence and commitment). The D4’s box is going to look a whole lot different than the D1’s box.

There are four primary boundaries of the Freedom Box:

  • Company values and/or guiding principles. Your values determine what behavior is or isn’t acceptable in the workplace. If you don’t have values with behavioral definitions, this is where you want to start. It’s the foundation of how you want people to perform.
  • Expectations. Ken Blanchard has long stated that “All good performance starts with clear goals.” If employees don’t have clearly defined goals, how are they supposed to know what a good job looks like? It’s hard to exhibit ownership over ill-defined, nebulous goals.
  • Level of authority. An employee’s level of authority in the Freedom Box should be determined by their demonstrated capabilities. Riggs and Riggs share four common-sense levels of authority:
    • Level 1—Check with me before you do anything. For rookies who are just learning.
    • Level 2—Make the decision, but check with me prior to implementation. For those still learning on the job and need practice.
    • Level 3—Make and implement the decision, but keep me in the loop. For employees who are experienced and demonstrate good judgment.
    • Level 4—The buck stops with you. Seasoned veterans who are highly trusted and experts in their domain.
  • Performance standards and metrics. Employees need standards of performance that defines the measure of success. Success should not be defined by solely what is achieved, but also how it is achieved.

Accountability is a mindset of people who are personally invested in their work. It’s not something the leader can force upon an individual. We as leaders need to be careful that we aren’t unintentionally hindering our people from developing their own resilience to be accountable. When we take away the pain, thwart initiative, don’t reward appropriate risk-tasking, and withhold honest feedback, we prevent our people from stepping into accountability. The Freedom Box is a helpful process for how leaders can put people IN the box in order to help them develop accountability.

5 Comments on “If You Want Employee Accountability, Keep Them IN the Box

  1. Great stuff up to the “how” it achieved performance measure. How is subjective and throws the premise of accountability “in the box” – in the garbage.

    If there are measurable results, the “what” is all that matters. How is a cop out allowing subjective control.

    • Hello Mike,

      Thanks for adding your perspective. I respectfully disagree because “how” results are achieve is just as important as “what” is achieved. For example, is it OK for a top producing salesperson to hit her goal through unethical behavior (e.g., falsifying orders, fraudulent pricing, etc.)? Is it OK for top performers to harass or bully their way to the top? I don’t think it is. The attitude of “results are the only thing that matters” leads to short-term and unethical thinking.

      Take care,


  2. 🙂 Can you please call this the “Freedom Arena”… you know… the place where you are… THE GLADIATOR IN VICTORY OF YOUR DOMAIN!! — Instead of the “Freedom Box”… where your prison cell gets enlarged upon performance goals. Because, OWNERSHIP… means it’s your ARENA OF CONQUEST… not the larger prison cell of a renter who would rather be: in an arena… free. 🙂

  3. I like the way the freedom level is given (Level 1 to 4). Level of freedom we give to our people, most of the time in my case, dependent on the urgency and direction set by our company top management and impact to business and customers on any potential issues that comes from errors in the delivery made by the people.

    So I have noticed majority of time we as managers tend to dictate most of the nitty-gritty already to the people. So Level 1 to 4, in this scenario only varies based on the skillset already possessed by the individual people to whom we assigned the task to. Probably we are not able to provide big chunk of accountability, ownership we want to them to have. We also can’t wait for the them to make their own decision since time and risk appetite of our seniors are not flexible.

    What is your view on this ?

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