What Is Accountability?

Wanted to talk for a few moments about the notion of “accountability” at work. It’s a big topic — maybe even a bit nuanced for a simple blog post. (Probably is.) But we’re going to try.

From a semantic perspective, one thing that makes no sense is the word that almost always precedes “accountability,” that being some form of “holds” or “holding.”

This is actually ludicrous.

“Holds” are what UFC fighters and bouncers do. Or Ric Flair. The figure-four leglock is a hold.

You shouldn’t be thinking about your people this way.

Consider this, from a 2015 Harvard Business Review article about how leaders should react when an employee disappoints:

But here’s what people almost never need: to feel scared or punished. And more often than not, that’s how we make them feel when we talk to them about us “holding them accountable”.

This is unfortunately very true in the case of many managers: they confuse the idea of “accountability” with “fear.”

For example: I attended a sales kickoff meeting for a company not too long ago. At the end of Day 1, all the sales reps had to get up and discuss their 2017 productivity. On the surface, this isn’t such a bad exercise. It shows numbers transparently and it’s a form of accountability.


Right. Well, right if it’s executed well. In this case, the sales manager grilled the reps, deeming it “constructive.” In reality some of the reps looked like they wanted to cry, or slink into the floor. You could argue that the reps were “soft,” sure. That would be one approach.

A more logical way to look at this: what happened wasn’t really accountability. It was a dog and pony show.

Accountability is an invited relationship based on two concepts:

  • Agreement ( clarification concerning everything from overall purpose to roles and responsibilities)
  • Alignment (voluntary execution of that agreement by all parties, intentionally carrying out the purpose or the responsibilities agreed upon)

If agreement and alignment (two A’s) aren’t present, the third A — accountability — won’t be invited. Forced accountability is what bad managers do when they claim to be “holding” someone to something.

Invited accountability means both parties know the expectations on each side, and there’s a clear connection between the bigger strategy (the end goals you want to accomplish) and execution (how you get there logistically). People who want to do better invite accountability. And most people will invite it when you help them see accountability through new lenses; when agreement has been reached first, and they own their own alignment.

Above all, there’s a purpose: why are we doing this? That’s going to be the strongest bond of them all. If a boss and a sales rep both understand the purpose of what they’re doing, both will want to be accountable. Without the purpose, though, what’s the point of being accountable?

As a leader, you should inspire people towards a purpose, not dictate it. So, talk to your team. Understand how the other likes to work and have work delivered. Go bigger picture. Ask questions about the why of different things and different ways of doing things. Don’t hide behind email or platforms. Be present. Get deep on tougher topics. The most important sales job you’ll do is to help your team tap into a greater purpose for their day-to day-things activities.

Once the agreement is there and the alignment is there, the accountability can become meaningful again. Stay tuned for the next part which is why most of us avoid or don’t like accountability.