Leadership and Accountability

The key is to decide whether you want to be a great task master or a great leader.


Recently, I’ve been asked several times by frustrated business owners how to hold their team members accountable for their work. It’s one of the biggest challenges, yet one of the most misunderstood concepts in the business world. How do you get your team to be accountable?

As you start to grow your company and bring on new people, this is one of the hardest aspects. It’s one thing if your team is always productive, efficient and delivering as promised. If that’s the case, congratulations, you’ve won the lottery! But most likely you will encounter situations from time to time where someone doesn’t follow through on their commitments.

For many of us, the whole idea of holding someone else accountable brings up a range of emotional baggage. In short, many of us don’t know how to approach the situation in an appropriate, professional way. In fact, many of us are so conflict averse that we may have trained our people to be relaxed about commitments. We’ve never held them accountable, so they think we don’t care!

In the book the Five dysfunctions of a team, by Patrick Lencioni…avoidance of accountability is evidence of low standards. When I started asking people their thoughts on the subject, I heard a lot of absolutes in their beliefs and approaches to accountability. One common theme that arose was that most people seemed to think it was a “just do what I ask” scenario, which I believe is the absolute wrong way to go about accountability.

The first problem with the “do what I say” approach is that accountability isn’t about doing anything! Accountability is about achieving mutually agreed upon results and outcomes, not simply about completing a task (although completing tasks is obviously part of getting results).You and your team should be working at how to be accountable for results, not just completing tasks.

The second problem with this approach is that most teams that I talk to simply don’t know how to be accountable. They just don’t understand the concept, and their misunderstanding is often magnified by their leaders incorrect approach of “holding them accountable”. What I’ve found over the years is that the best way to hold someone accountable is to teach them how to BE accountable. If you have to “hold” them accountable or “call them on it”, then you have likely already lost the battle and will end up with the dreaded lose-lose situation instead of a win-win.

Teaching people how to be accountable will take some time, but it’s always worth it because they will improve for you on a steady basis long before they get to own their accountability. The steps are fairly simple and straight-forward, just like most fundamentals of business.

The key is to decide whether you want to be a great task master or a great leader.

Step one

Set expectations for the results/outcomes you expect from each person. Since accountability is all about outcomes, you have to clearly define what you are expecting.

Step two

The most obvious, but also the least utilised – you have to now share your expectations with your team!

Step 3

The most important, and it is what makes accountability work – you have to get the employees commitment to achieve the outcomes you are requesting as their personal goal/target. Without the team buying into the expectations, you will just be beating your head against the proverbial wall trying to hold them accountable to something they never agreed to do for you in the first place! This might take a discussion or two, you may have to help them understand how they can achieve what you are asking, and you will need to ensure that you provide the tools and environment for them to succeed.

Now that you have defined the expectations, shared them and received a commitment from your team to perform to these expectations, it is time to start teaching them how to be accountable to their agreement. Some people get it from day one, others take time and coaching, this all needs you to be a great leader for them.

Here are some of my favourite coaching methods for helping people to be accountable.

Firstly, catch them doing well, even if it is just them trying. Ask them how they are doing in relation to their commitments. Ask them what help/support they need, what is preventing them from meeting their goals/targets/commitments. The key to success is getting their participation in the discussions, so be sure to ask then most importantly listen! If they don’t know, tell them it’s ok, and ask them what they think. Ask them to recall what you talked about last time (but not in a patronising way). The key to all employee coaching is to get them talking so that they take ownership of their own development and success. If they forget something, that’s ok, have them think back to the last time it was discussed, help them to do their own recall – don’t do it for them.

‘Above and Below the Line’ is a framework used by ActionCoach to identify three negative and three positive behaviour traits that apply to everyone in all companies. It’s a good idea to put this poster on the wall around your company as a reminder. Indeed, in our company it becomes a fun way of communicating and reminding each other in a non confrontational way of the need to be above the line.

The bottom line for accountability is that “holding people accountable” is difficult to do, and establishes an adversarial relationship where someone wins and the other loses, while “helping people be accountable” is much easier and establishes a trusting supportive win-win relationship. 


Here are some recommendations for good books on Leadership are below:

Leadership and the one minute manager – Ken Blanchard

Speed of trust – Steven Covey

Five levels of leadership – John Maxwell

The leadership pipeline – Charan Drotter Noel

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