Accountability sits in with my standard list of typical organizational woes, right up there with a lack of cross-functional working and the need to communicate better. At times it seems to have replaced leadership and engagement as the latest buzz word.

Teamwork works together to build a gear system

Accountability can mean lots of different things to different people. If you ask for examples of how a lack of accountability shows up in organizations, you get fairly consistent responses:

  •  People don’t step up. When something challenging needs to be done, no one wants to take ownership.
  •  People don’t deliver. They say they are going to do something and they don’t do it.
  •  People don’t challenge. When someone fails to deliver no one says anything and there are no consequences.

Many of the more traditional approaches to fostering a culture of accountability in organizations focus on one or more of the following: more clearly defining expectations, giving timely and relevant feedback, and meaningful consequences if people do or don’t deliver. This seems like the basis of a good approach, but not understanding the underlying causes may actually make things worse. To tackle the elusiveness of accountability, we need to take a closer look at the underlying drivers of behaviour. What is actually going on when people are taking ownership and are being accountable for results? I want to talk about three factors that can influence how accountability shows up in an organization:

The management approach that strives so hard to hold people accountable is likely working against us. What we should be striving for is not just holding people accountable but creating the conditions for people to take accountability.


Project Mercury ran from 1959 to 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth. There were many conflicts between the astronauts and engineers during the design of the Mercury-Atlas 6: it was designed to be completely controllable from the ground in the event that something impaired the pilot’s ability to function, and NASA at first envisioned pilots as “minor participants” despite the astronauts’ test pilot experience. While the pilots opposed this and sought greater control of the spacecraft, they learned that the success of missions was solely judged on the completion of a large number of in-flight tests and activities. Missions were named as only partially successful if these tasks were not competed, and a successful track record would be critical to pilot selection for future missions – and it would eventually determine who would go to the Moon.

The Mercury astronauts saw themselves principally as pilots and fought hard for the ability to fly their spacecraft. Initially, they pushed back against mission objectives, seeing them as hurdles to be overcome, not as critical developmental stages towards standing on the Moon. If someone can’t make meaning of what it is they are being asked to do in a way that resonates with them they will resist taking ownership. Conversely when people identify strongly with something and see it as defining to who they are, given the chance, they will naturally incorporate the responsibility into their role.


In organizations where roles and responsibilities are defined in detail and expectations are fully mapped out, I often find a reluctance to ‘play in the grey’ between roles. If you don’t allow breathing room in roles and responsibilities, you remove discretion. By removing discretion, you dilute intrinsic motivation and limit the appetite and capacity for people to take on the difficult challenges that matter. I am not advocating allowing people to just do what they want. I am suggesting that being overly prescriptive in terms of roles and process, to maximize utility, is one key contributor to folk not being prepared to step up when required.

The belief that we will be more effective if we all know and stick to what we should be doing is compelling but flawed. Ironically, clearer expectations can result in a ‘jobs worth’ mentality and a lack of willingness from people to be accountable for what they see as extra responsibility. Such organizations can be characterized by lots of really busy people striving to do things right at the expense of doing the right thing. The questions we should be asking is, Are people exercising discretion to do the right thing?

When faced with an opportunity to do the right thing, what we are trying to avoid is folk asking themselves, Do I have the time? or Do I have the choice? What we want people to be focusing on is the How? and What are the risks? – and preferably, they are appraising risk in terms of choices of action, not personal liability!


When we think of accountability and consequences, it’s hard to think in any other way than negatively. It conjures up images of being dressed down, berated and other general unpleasantness. It very quickly takes us to a place of contemplating a lack of delivery implying demotion or loss of employment. If these are the examples that come to mind when we think about consequences in terms of accountability, then it’s not a surprise to observe reluctance in wanting to be accountable for anything. Again it would appear that our model for increasing accountability is working against us; however, the issue here is not the model but our mindset around consequences.

How are we characterizing success and what do we recognize as good performance? A person’s performance should be judged at least in part on how they recover from setbacks. How do we encourage people to take risks and recognize that failure is part of success? It’s one thing for people to accept responsibility for something and another thing again to actually deliver. Accountability is not flawless delivery.

This is as much about the environment we create for people. We want a performance environment where people who want to be held accountable can thrive. Too often we see companies where playing safe and covering your back are implicit in the way you are successful. We need to come at this differently and explore how we promote positive consequences. If you are someone who is prepared to step up, to take on responsibility where others are reluctant, you by definition set yourself apart. If you become adept at handling the successes and setbacks that come with the territory of managing critical issues, you grow in the eyes of others as a leader. What comes with this are greater influence and more opportunity for discretion in what you do. It may also come with more financial rewards and, you guessed it, more accountability!

In summary there is a paradox here. The management approach that strives so hard to hold people accountable – through setting clearer expectations and better defining roles and responsibilities – is likely working against us. What might be needed is leadership – with a compelling vision and a belief in potential – that is more prepared to allow room for individuals to step up. What we should be striving for is not just holding people accountable but creating the conditions for people to take accountability.


July 25, 2016 • in Opinion, Strategy
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