Accountability. It’s a word that gets bandied about often. We hear that accountability is one of most important elements fueling truly successful organizations. And it’s easy to talk about how we need to be more accountable, but accountability can be like rain. We all know we need it, but we don’t want to get wet. So what does accountability really mean? And how can we truly begin to hold ourselves and those around us accountable?

At the heart of it, accountability simply means doing what you say you’re going to do and keeping your commitments. Accountability and integrity are interlinked; to maintain both, we need to hold ourselves to a certain standard. Of course, as human beings, we are imperfect and can never be perfectly accountable. However, we can strive for this ideal accountability in our core values.

Accountability has three components. First, accountability calls for having clear goals so we know where we’re going. Next, accountability means getting feedback on your performance against those goals and in turn giving feedback. Finally, accountability must have rewards or sanctions based on an individual’s performance against those goals. If you’re missing any of these three components (clarity, feedback, rewards/sanctions) then accountability doesn’t work.

So, how do we encourage a culture of accountability in the workplace? Again, the first step is setting clear goals. In a black and white world, goals are very easy to set. But the world is complex and dynamic, and the reality is that it’s much more difficult to maintain clear goals and expectations. When everything is important, nothing is important, and ever-shifting goals can cause confusion. Individuals should strive for a sense of clarity in these very complex environments, and then do their best to give and get a constant stream of feedback to strengthen accountability across roles within an organization.

One of the toughest things people struggle with is giving and getting feedback – and doing it enough to help drive accountability. So often we keep secret scorecards on how others around us are doing, but don’t ever disclose them with the individual. Our peers don’t know our comments and concerns, because they can’t read minds. Yet we constantly assume they know, because that’s easier than actually sharing the feedback.

A great place to start when giving feedback is to develop a sense of curiosity about what a colleague or manager’s goals are. Then, check your intent. Do you actually care about this person’s success? If the answer is yes, it’s a great idea to give constructive feedback which will help develop true accountability. If your intent is about hurting them or defending yourself, then you shouldn’t be giving feedback.

Setting rewards and sanctions for accountability standards helps set healthy boundaries with people. If you have the choice not to work with someone who is truly unaccountable to the point of being toxic, make that choice. It is important to remember, however, that accountability doesn’t turn on with the flip of a switch. It must be built over time. Be willing to take baby steps and recognize small victories, as it is rare that your feedback will inspire change overnight.

Does your organization have a shared vision of accountability? Start by assessing where your organization is currently and where you want the organization to be. Then you can begin to build the foundation to lead you there. It doesn’t really matter where you start – what matters most is that you start.


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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