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Being Accountable for Accountability at Work

Since Babylonian times, rolling in another new year has prompted a goal-setting spree.

It’s not quite as clear how far back we can trace our cynical certainty that many new year’s resolutions will turn out to be utter flops and failures.

Our relationship with goals is a complicated one. On one hand, we love ‘em and can’t move forward without ‘em. And on the other hand, goals seem to bring out the worst in us as we ignore, evade, shirk, stall, and try to get them to simply evaporate, unaccomplished.

What’s even worse than goals? Accountability. After all, a goal is harmless, until we add an expectation for achieving it. Accountability gives inspiring, aspirational goals a scary edge fraught with opportunity to fail. (See our post “Setting Goals Like You Mean It” for tips on how to set impactful goals and keep your motivation high).

Accountability at Work

What’s even tougher than struggling with our own accountability? Accountability at work.

Think about your own complicated relationship with goals and accountability. Now multiply that out to cover all of the goals and expectations in your organization, and the whole set of people in your organization supposedly accountable for achieving them.

What a potential mess! And yet...we often manage to eke out collective accomplishments. What’s happening when accountability is bringing out our best meaningful work together? And what’s going wrong when we’re encountering accountability potholes?

“Accountability separates the wishers in life from the action-takers that care enough about their future to account for their daily actions.” - John Di Lemme

Since Accountability Matters, We’re Naturally Good At It, Right?

Apparently not.

Accountability definitely matters. Both for resolution-type strategic goals, and in day-to-day operations, much of our work requires that hand-offs occur before the next team members can do their part. If team members do not hold themselves and their team accountable for accomplishing each step toward a goal, an entire workflow may be pushed back, delayed, and eventually rushed to meet final deadlines. Poor accountability to timing, quality standards, and meaningful outcomes result in budget busts, poor sales, lost customers, and workplace stress. Staying committed to see a goal through matters.

Yet, we can all related to feeling frustrated with how or when or whether team members are accomplishing their part of the work. The Partners in Leadership published a Workplace Accountability Study in 20149, reporting survey responses from 40,000 workers over several years. Consider your experience of these findings:

  • 82% of people either avoid holding others accountable or fail to do so after trying.
  • 84% believed that leader behavior is a main factor that influences accountability in their organization, but only 15% of leaders were successfully able to communicate desired results clearly.
  • Just 33% of people see due dates as real commitments.

Holding others accountable when it’s hard enough to stay true to our own goals? Gasp. Clearly communicating desired results? Sounds possible... Viewing due dates as real commitments? Especially when they are internal commitments to downstream team members? Slippery.

Plus, people don’t tend to like to be “held accountable,” do we? Most of us equate being “held accountable” with getting in trouble for something we did wrong.

Being Accountable for Accountability

If you’re a business owner, leader, manager, or HR professional, are you fully embracing accountability? Not just for personal goals. Not just as a role model in your organization. But also as a shaper of a culture of accountability that can help your teams thrive?

Types of Workplace Accountability

Luckily, we get to start with the raw material team members bring to our organization – after all, most people do show up to work most days wanting to do a decent job. And some people are models of integrity and accountability in their work roles. But we’re also human, and with all that is going on in busy organizations, being accountable gets hard.

Yet we can go beyond just hoping individuals being accountable adds up to be enough. In the workplace, there are two accountability processes active in the organization as a human system: formal and informal accountability. Formal accountability operates through planned, written processes within a company that instill the importance of responsibility. Examples of formal accountability include: reporting relationships, employee contracts, performance evaluation systems, disciplinary procedures, quality monitoring, and reward systems (compensation, bonuses).

Informal accountability processes, on the other hand, are not official organizational mechanisms. However, they exist within the workplace and influence accountability. Informal accountability happens through group norms, organizational culture, and feelings of loyalty towards the team, leader, or organization overall4.

Both formal and informal accountability impact individual perceptions of how important it is to be personally responsible for meeting goals within the organization6,8

7 Ways to Promote Accountability

  • Be Accountable

Role model. Start with being accountable. Share your goals and follow through to achieve them. Openly reflect on challenges you face in being accountable. Watch out for inconsistencies between your messages and actions to avoid perceptions that you’re being unfair3,10.

You can have results or excuses. Not both. – Arnold Schwarzenegger

  • Create Clear & Compelling Expectations Up Front

The survey cited earlier found that one-third of people experienced confusion in where to invest time and energy as a result of shifting priorities9. Be deliberate in discussing expectations up front: set standards for work quality, work timing, and what to do when problems arise2. If priority shifts occur, take the time to communicate clearly, reduce confusion, and help team members redirect. Make vision tangible enough to outweigh any perceptions of reality or difficulty that are paralyzing.

It is what it is, but it will become what you make it. – Abraham Lincoln

Build In Progress Check-Ins

Make responsibility for achieving goals a frequent topic for team dialogue. Encourage team members to check-in with each other regularly, not just when there is a crisis. Reinforce the idea that completing goals is important, and that the entire team is in it together. Teams that check in to be accountable get the opportunity to work through problems, adjust strategies, or gain additional direction in order to meet goals and exceed expectations2.

It is not only what WE do, but also what WE do not do for which WE are accountable. – John Baptist Moliere

Set a Positive Tone for Accountability

Encourage a positive, goal-directed tone about being accountable, rather than a punitive, blameful hunt for wrongdoing. That doesn’t mean bury problems or overlook real failures. But it’s important to create a culture where being accountable feels beneficial rather than threatening.

Model phrasing that demonstrates hope, proactivity, and safe vulnerability.

  • “Have you already completed step x?” is more optimistic than “Have you done x yet?”
  • “Is there anything worrying you about where we’ll be on this in another week?” is safer than “Everything’s on track, right?”

Provide Resources and Training Needed to Get the Job Done

Cultivate belief in the team’s capabilities to successfully achieve goals with the abilities, skills, and resources at hand. High accountability plus confidence is powerful. But high accountability combined with inadequate preparation is a recipe for stress and failure. Research endorses that when people have high job self-efficacy, being accountable leads to more positive outcomes, including increased helping behaviors11

Bolster Accountability with Autonomy, Not Control

Encouraging accountability can have a lot of positive impacts on your organization. Unfortunately, being accountable can also be a source of stress for team members5,7. Stress is most likely when accountability is paired with limited personal discretion over how work happens. When we have autonomy, we are less likely to experience stress or strain as a result of being accountable for goals7.

Build Trust

Trust promotes accountability. Accountability has a transactional component (do X task by Y date), and an interpersonal component. When team members and leaders have trusting relationships, more honest communication is likely. The trust a leader places in a team builds efficacy and motivation to reach goals. The trust a team places in leaders, supports comfort asking questions and seeking guidance. When trust is high, leaders monitor less and team members experience greater autonomy1

On good teams coaches hold players accountable, on great teams players hold players accountable. – Joe Dumars


  1. Ammeter, A. P., Douglas, C., Ferris, G. R., & Goka, H. (2004). A social relationship conceptualization of trust and accountability in organizations. Human Resource Management Review, 14(1), 47–65.
  2. Bregman, P. (2016). The Right Way to Hold People Accountable. Harvard Business Review, January 11.
  3. De Cremer, D. (2003). Why inconsistent leadership is regarded as procedurally unfair: The importance of social self-esteem concerns. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(4), 535–550.
  4. Frink, D. D., & Klimoski, R. J. (2004). Advancing accountability theory and practice: Introduction to the human resource management review special edition. Human Resource Management Review, 14(1), 1–17.
  5. Green, M. C., Visser, P. S., & Tetlock, P. E. (2000). Coping with accountability cross-pressures: Low-Effort evasive tactics and high-effort quests for complex compromises. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(11), 1380–1391.
  6. Hall, A. T., Frink, D. D., & Buckley, M. R. (2015). An accountability account: A review and synthesis of the theoretical and empirical research on felt accountability: Accountability. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(2), 204–224.
  7. Hall, A. T., Royle, M. T., Brymer, R. A., Perrewé, P. L., Ferris, G. R., & Hochwarter, W. A. (2006). Relationships between felt accountability as a stressor and strain reactions: The neutralizing role of autonomy across two studies. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11(1), 87–99.
  8. Hall, A. T. (2005). Accountability in Organizations: An examination of antecedents and consequences [Dissertation].
  9. Partners In Leadership. (2014). Landmark workplace study reveals “Crisis of Accountability.” Culture Management Experts.
  10. Posner, B. Z., & Kouzes, J. M. (1993). Psychometric properties of the leadership practices inventory-updated. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 53(1), 191–199.
  11. Royale, M. T., Hall, A. T., Hochwarter, W., Perrewé, P. L., & Ferris, G. R. (2005). The interactive effects of accountability and job self-efficacy on organizational citizenship behavior and political behavior. Organizational Analysis, 13(1), 53–71.
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