Accountability Essentials

In an age of ubiquitous social media and cell-phone videos, leaders know that one careless customer experience can go viral, ruining their corporate reputations and wrecking careers. They must therefore be transparent, conscientious and responsible to their global constituents, never forgetting that employees, customers and the community at large will hold them to the highest standards.

Accountability refers to your answerability, blameworthiness and liability. Leaders must acknowledge and assume responsibility for their actions, products, decisions and policies. They must also insist on accountability at all levels of the workplace hierarchy. Employees should be expected to operate within a culture of personal responsibility and be held accountable to their peers, teams and the organization.


Accountability starts at the top, with an executive team that fully commits to worthy goals and objectives. With transparency, you engage your workforce to implement, support and be accountable for corporate actions.

Employee accountability requires engagement. The highest motivator is intrinsic: tapping into people’s strengths and interests, while allowing a certain degree of autonomy. Rewards needn’t always be monetary; often, simple recognition stimulates engagement. Most people work better when they know someone cares and is interested in them.


Leadership consultants John Blakey and Ian Day offer the following accountability pyramid in Challenging Coaching: Going Beyond Traditional Coaching to Face the FACTS (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012):

Level 1 accountability focuses on personal actions, learning and engagement. How do you hold yourself accountable? Which values, ambitions and goals drive you toward action?

In Level 2 accountability, more than one person is involved: a partnership, coaching or managerial relationship, business unit or team. Participants set common goals and agree to complete them together through shared responsibility, work and accountability.

Level 3 accountability includes stakeholders within a wider system: the business organization, department or division, other staff, customers, suppliers, shareholders and the public at large. Accountability measures may include written and unwritten mission statements, ethical standards and cultural norms.

Level 3 is where responsibility and accountability often break down, with a lack of clarity or blurred lines of reportability. Responsibility may be passed around and neglected within the wider system.

As for Level 2, some managerial and coaching relationships overemphasize personal behaviors without sufficiently linking them to the big picture and business results. Personal accountability (Level 1) must work in concert with Level 2 for sustainable success. Leaders require skill at all three levels to steer their corporate ships.


True accountability cannot exist without feedback and rewards—areas in which most organizations have weaknesses.

Unfortunately, most managers dread providing feedback, which seems to have such a negative connotation in our society. No matter how many negative comments are offset with positive ones, recipients always seem to obsess over perceived slights. This tendency is actually physiological: Our brains are wired to be biased toward negativity—a phenomenon that can undermine trust and rapport.

Needless to say, if your feedback is strictly positive, there’s no way for you to provide constructive input. On the other end of the feedback continuum, overly critical feedback will discourage employees’ efforts. Leaders need to strike the right balance.


Here’s a more helpful way to view the feedback continuum:






High support,
low challenge:

Feedback effect:
Status quo: Keep on doing same things

High support,
high challenge:

Feedback effect:
Challenged to do more and better: high performance

Low support,
low challenge:

Feedback effect:
Apathy, boredom

Low support,
high challenge:

Feedback effect:

   Low Challenge           ⇒      High Challenge

When you deliver feedback, you can offer high or low levels of support and challenge, with relatively predictable results.

If you, for example, provide supportive, yet unchallenging, feedback, your employee has no reason to change. Without any challenges, the employee may become complacent, bored or disengaged.

Conversely, if you give employees a challenge, but provide low support, they will probably perceive a stressful command-and-control environment. Why should they give their best without supervisory support or positive reinforcement ?


Most feedback falls into two quadrants of the matrix:

  1. There’s too much support, without enough challenge (enforcing the status quo).
  2. Overly critical feedback creates too much stress (low support/high challenge).

The most effective managers, leaders and coaches provide high-support/high-challenge feedback, which increases employee awareness while pushing for enhanced performance. You can say, for example: “Your recent report was stellar. You covered all the basics and backed them up with research. Here’s an idea to consider: How can this report be better? I’d like to see you come up with one or two ways to make it airtight. How would you do that?”


Most management systems are so focused on individual performance that they undermine the very teamwork they hope to encourage. As a team manager, you can support desired behaviors by ensuring that everyone understands and agrees on what success looks like. Bring team members together to discuss goals and metrics. Have them answer this question: “What would it take for us to give ourselves an A?”

Once the team knows and understands its mission and how work will be evaluated, be sure to check in regularly. Pose questions that help the group assess its progress:

  • How are we performing as a team?
  • What obstacles can we remove?