We’re wrong about accountability (video transcript)

Let’s talk about the word accountability. It’s something we hear everywhere these days, but I find it’s often ill-defined which leads to people doing all the wrong things to increase accountability in their teams.


Let’s start with the definition. Accountability is an internal characteristic, a sense of responsibility within oneself to fulfill an obligation and do what it takes to deliver.

I always hear people say “I’m going to hold you accountable.” But accountability is a feeling and a state, and someone else can’t make you feel a given way. So let’s stop talking about accountability as something we can enforce on other people.

Clear expectations

Instead, let’s think about how we make it more likely that some is going to feel accountable. We can do that by focusing on setting clear expectations so they know exactly what they need to deliver, with whom and why it matters, as well as what the stakes are.

Clear expectations really help people to know what they are accountable for.

Helpful feedback

Next, more feedback. A colleague or team member may feel that everything is going swimmingly and that they are accountable when in reality they’re not. If they haven’t received appropriate feedback, a sense of accountability is not likely to help. Therefore, feedback is really important for helping people understand that sense of accountability.

Appropriate consequences

Proper consequences are very important.

Many managers may talk a lot about accountability, but when someone doesn’t deliver they don’t respond with appropriate consequences. To give an example, if a project isn’t finished by the time a team member had committed to deliver, then you need to ensure that there are consequences; such as them not being assigned to these kind of projects in the future or having to stay until the project is completed.

Delegating up

Finally, a problem I see all the time is managers picking up the slack of team members who haven’t held themselves accountable.

Instead of making them feel the heat and encouraging them to resolve their own issues, these managers stay up until midnight trying to fix the problem themselves. All that teaches the team members is that they don’t have to be accountable.

Accountability is so important to healthy teams. That means that each individual should know what they’re committing to and feel a profound sense of the importance of delivering it so they don’t let other people down. That also means that there are consequences when they do stay accountable and deliver positive consequences, but also that they actually feel the discomfort of not being accountable.

More on this

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How to decrease accountability