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Accountability – let start doing it like we actually mean it (Part Three)

The Lime Group | Articles

In the first two parts of this blog, we have seen that the leaders of many high-profile organizations are trying to create ‘cultures of accountability’ to ensure that their people do business in line with their stated vision and values – thus improving performance and avoiding brand-crushing scandals. But this endeavor is failing because you can’t mandate people to feel and behave with true accountability. The best you’ll get through a mandated approach is people complying with the articulated rules. You can only achieve true accountability – by inspiring, trusting and empowering people to want to do it for themselves. This, in turn, requires a whole new approach to leading…


From my work on accountability across a range of organizations and industries, a consistent pattern emerges. The higher up the priority list ‘building accountability’ rises, the more head-on and directive becomes the leader’s style. They tell people what’s expected of them with increasing directness. They introduce ‘consequence management’ whereby people’s actions are linked to praise or (more frequently) punishment very rapidly. They get rid of people who transgress. One initiative gets piled on top of another. Sometimes these solutions are quite punitive. Other times, they are more positive in tone. But what they all have in common is that they are typically experienced as disempowering by the populations of people at which they are aimed.

‘Going for the jugular’ (regardless of how justified it may be from a performance perspective) doesn’t work if your main concern is building accountability, because it disempowers people even more. No one likes to be forced. It creates fear, risk aversion and a culture of escalation as people work to avoid making decisions lest they make a mistake. Work slows down. Bureaucracy and ‘a**e covering’ becomes the norm. As leaders, the more we focus directly on building accountability in our people, the less accountable they feel. It’s a catch-22…

So, if mandating a solution is off the table, what does work?

A culture of accountability is, in fact, the result of a combination of other factors related to the employee experience – each of which needs to be purposefully managed. In my experience, accountability can much more quickly and effectively be built by working on shifting these underlying, root cause factors, than by hammering away at accountability itself.

Let’s look at the drivers and see why they’re important:

1.     Inspiration – As discussed in Part Two of this blog, people will only be accountable if they feel inspired by the organization’s vision. That’s inspired with a small ‘i’. I am not implying that leaders must give Steve Jobs-style motivational presentations on a weekly basis. But I am suggesting that employees, to be accountable, need to find the mission and vision of the organization where they work meaningful. They have to have some reason – beyond just money – for putting effort and care into what they do. Only if they connect to (are inspired by) the vision articulated by their leaders will they feel personally driven to do the right thing.

2.     Clarity – People are only in a position to be accountable if they understand what is expected of them and believe they have enough of what they need – capabilities / assistance / resources – to be successful. As leaders, we need to be careful to ensure that our words and actions line up in terms of commitments to provide support to our people. Achieving role and goal clarity takes on a whole additional level of complexity in large, matrixed organizations. The reality is that a significant proportion of most people’s accountabilities will overlap with other people’s, or be shared across the wider team. While it is neither possible nor productive to draw a bright line between individual and shared accountability in every circumstance, the boundaries must be defined enough for people to know how to progress their work.

3.     Authorship – To feel accountable, and to be willing to take on the responsibility, extra effort and risk that accountability implies, people need to be the ‘authors of their own story’. They need to have enough autonomy and freedom to do things their own way. They need to be able to see and feel the consequences of their decisions… and have enough time and space to course correct when needed. Without this breathing room, people will not step up. They will tend to play it safe and just do as they are told… even when it doesn’t make sense. Crucially, for leaders, enabling people to have authorship implies giving trust and space – this can feel extremely difficult to do when your organization is already under brand or performance pressure. But it’s simply essential.

4.     Impact – People will only feel and act accountable if there is a tangible way of measuring their success in contributing to the organization’s vision and values. This may be part of the performance management system, or not, but there is a crucial difference between measuring impact and ‘going for the jugular’. Measuring impact is about ensuring a line-of-sight between each person’s work contribution, and the inspirational vision and values of the business (not just achievement of tasks or deliverables). It is about ensuring that the work they are doing is making a difference to the end-customer. Once it is clear that their work can make a meaningful contribution, then performance management can help direct that work to be done in the best possible way by celebrating success or supporting them to learn if they miss the mark. There need to be consistent and motivating consequences for everyone, including at the executive level, for contributing to results and doing it in a way that is aligned with values. If leaders are perceived to get away with bad behavior (i.e. ways of operating that are not aligned with our values) because they’re senior or because they get $$$ results, then accountability dies a swift death. Consistency and transparency are key. As a leader, it is not enough to simply do the right thing, you have to communicate what you intend to do, do it transparently, and then follow up to make sure everyone has the same understanding of what you did.

5.      Courage – Acting with accountability requires courage on several levels. Courage to make a judgment call when you believe something needs to be done differently. Courage to speak up when other people are not. Courage to think differently about ways to serve the customer and the shareholders at the same time. Fear suffocates accountability. More than once, I have seen well-intentioned efforts around risk and compliance destroy accountability in record speed. Then leaders sit and scratch their heads, wondering how it could be that tightening up on communications and processes around risk has failed to halt brand‑damaging incidents. People will only be accountable if the work environment actively encourages honest conversations, calling out bad behavior, highlighting risks and errors, and challenging the prevailing majority mindset.

Some of these factors may not, on the surface, appear to be about accountability – but neglect them at your peril. It only takes a deficit in one of these drivers to undermine all your best efforts, and sabotage accountability. Any successful attempt to foster a culture of accountability begins with understanding how you stand in these five areas. Often, existing solutions will focus on some of them and underplay others. Take the time to analyze properly where the blockage is, and solutions suddenly become possible. If you would like access to the ‘Five Factors’ tool I use to assess the current state of accountability in client organizations, please send me a note and I’d be happy to share.

As leaders, we need to grow new muscles to inspire our people, to role model in high transparency environments, and to be connected without being controlling. (We’ll talk about what those muscles are in the next instalment of this blog series.)

Once we stop trying to tackle accountability head-on and focus instead on remedying the drivers that underpin it, people start doing it for themselves – which, after all, is what accountability is really all about!

If you missed Part One of this blog, it can be found here: Accountability Blog Part 1

And Part Two is here: Accountability Blog Part 2