One of my Google alerts led me to a Huffington Post blog by Robert Brand, which asks two questions I found provocative:

  • Before the start of any project, do you ask yourself, "Are my team members held accountable?”

  • “Do they feel a personal responsibility to deliver the goods?"


The first question reflects a traditional view of accountability, and in reality, actually erodes individual commitment and true accountability.


Brand outlines steps for ensuring accountability with reminders and consequences. It speaks to an underlying assumption that if someone wielding authority didn’t “make sure” workers were following orders; work would grind to a halt.  This creates a parent-child environment and sets a default standard of compliance. By definition, compliance requires conformity, which squelches qualities such as diversity of thought, creativity, critical analysis and independent decision-making that could serve and strengthen the organization.  Compliance won’t get you commitment, and commitment is what fuels true excellence.


The organizational myth of “holding others accountable” is strong and persistent. In reality, how does one person really hold another person accountable against his or her will?  And think about how much time and attention is devoted to figuring out ways we will hold them accountable. When this is the topic of another meeting, the focus at the beginning of a project, or the goal of a performance evaluation, it becomes a distraction to the task at hand. This thinking and the associated actions exemplify what University of California professor Phil Tetlock calls the “falsity of the conventional wisdom — often born out of frustration at irrational, insensitive, or lazy decision-makers — that accountability is a cognitive or social panacea. ‘All we need to do is hold the rascals accountable.’ “


The second question, “Do people feel a personal responsibility to deliver the goods?" is more relevant, and has more potential. It gets to the heart of how people contribute at work. An even more potent question would be:  How can conversations about accountability be framed so that they make visible the critical importance of individual contribution to the business?

Accountability is essential to the survival and success of any endeavor. It’s almost impossible to imagine any kind of consistently good result that doesn’t have accountability at its core. But accountability is always a choice people make, and talking about “holding others accountable” obscures this fact. Many modern thought leaders have shown how organizations benefit when leaders let go of the illusion of “control” and begin developing a workforce characterized by self-direction, autonomy, and learning. This fosters engaged, committed employees. It is the antithesis of “holding others accountable.”


Robert Brand writes: “When you establish accountability, it leads to great benefits to you, such as being able to trust in your team, freeing up time to concentrate on strategy, and getting to lead a team that is confident and motivated.”


All true. But it’s the HOW of establishing accountability that will help you reap those rewards.