Why another book on accountability? Quite simply because what’s been written, isn’t working. People at work just aren’t all that accountable. Study after study has shown that managers aren’t holding others accountable1, they don’t know how to hold others accountable2, they aren’t able to hold others accountable3 or managers and employees are avoiding accountability for fear of the consequences should they fail.4 In fact, one study showed that one in five respondents indicated that 30% to 50% of their employees simply
weren’t accountable.5 That’s a lot of bad apples in the barrel.

There are plenty of books on the topic of accountability offering good advice, but their solutions only address one or two factors associated with the problem of employee accountability. I’ve spent the last two years actively engaged in researching accountability. That work surfaced over 45 factors that influence accountability in organizations. These factors can be grouped into: organizational factors, leadership factors, team or department factors, and individual factors. Obviously, to improve accountability all or most of the factors within each group should be addressed and resolved.

Increasing accountability is a daunting task, but it doesn’t require any new processes, technology, or significant costs. It will take time and time is a cost, but most improvement projects require time. In this case, the return on invested time will result in significant increases in productivity quality, employee engagement and commitment. This book offers a new accountability model. Instead of focusing results and finding whose to blame for failure, this new take on accountability emphasizes learning and improving thought processes, communication, and collaboration.


Part One introduces the major factors influencing accountability in organizations, some of the more popular approaches to accountability, and introduces the new accountability paradigm. Part Two offers a new definition of accountability and how it differs from and is related to responsibility and commitment. Part Three introduces the new accountability model with its emphasis on learning and involvement. Part Four presents actions executives, managers, team leaders, and team members can take to address the factors influencing accountability and use the new model to increase collaboration, productivity, and intellectual capital. The Appendix includes some helpful forms for applying the new accountability model within your organization.


Chapter One

Common Perceptions of Accountability

Accountability Has a Bad Rap

Many people, at work, think of accountability as something that happens to someone, after things go wrong. The phrase, “someone needs to be held accountable” is often interpreted as someone needs to be the person to whom blame or fault can be attributed. There is usually a negative consequence for such failure, a reprimand, chastisement, or even termination. Unfortunately, a large percentage of projects are unsuccessful. Research conducted by the Institute of Project Management, on the success and failure rate of projects within organizations, found that somewhere between 30% and 60% of the projects studied failed to deliver the targeted outcomes, meet budget requirements, or deliver the improved results they were created to resolve.6

On the other hand, feedback for successful projects is not very common. A Partners in Leadership study (2014) revealed that 80% of respondents only received feedback when things go wrong.7 They heard nothing when things went well. Try this little exercise. It’s 3:00pm on a Friday afternoon. You are in the hallway when your boss spots you and heads over to you. She’s in a hurry and asks you to meet her in her office at 4:30. “I want to talk about your project.” She doesn’t have time to say anything more. What’s going through your mind? Take time to write your thoughts on a piece of paper.

I have given this scenario to thousands of managers in leadership workshops for over twenty years. The results have remained constant over time. Not knowing anything more than the boss wanted to meet with them to discuss their project, over 90% of the workshop participants assumed something was wrong.

I was given this little scenario way back in 1979 during a workshop with Ken Blanchard. Like most of the others in my group and most of the people in the workshops I conduct, I anticipated the worst. Why? Because I felt I my work was poor? No, I knew I did good work. It was because, like most people, the large majority of the time you meet with a boss it’s because something went wrong.

With relatively high failure rates of projects and the negative consequences associated with failure, it’s not surprising that people are avoiding responsibility and accountability. How often have you heard the word “accountability” associated for a success?


Clarifying What Accountability Is and Is Not

Before getting too deeply into accountability, it’s necessary to define what it is. There are a lot of writers who use the term to mean anything from responsibility, to motivation to
ownership, obligation and more. While these terms are related to accountability, they are not accountability. Let’s look at some of the more popular definitions of accountability.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Business Dictionary (online): The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.

Vocabulary.com: Accepting responsibility and accountability for acts and behaviors. Taking accountability means admitting mistakes. Accountability shows ownership and a willingness to admit mistakes.

Cambridge Dictionary: Responsible for and having to explain actions.

Partners in Leadership: Subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.

Research Definition: Accountability refers to an implicit or explicit expectation that one’s decisions or actions will be subject to evaluation by some salient audience(s) (including self) with the belief that there exists the potential for one to receive either rewards or sanctions based on this expected evaluation. (Angela Hall, xxxx)


Key concepts from these definitions include:

  • A sense of obligation to account for one’s actions
  • Acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions
  • Disclosure of results in a transparent manner
  • Admitting mistakes
  • Ownership and willingness to admit mistakes
  • Having to explain one’s actions
  • Subject to an obligation to report, explain, or justify
  • Answerable
  • Implicit or explicit expectation
  • Subject to evaluation by a salient other
  • Self-evaluation
  • Subject to rewards or sanctions


The following definition of accountability and explanations are used for the purposes of this book:

Accountability is the evaluation of results, planning, actions, and outcomes of a project or task assigned to or taken on by an individual who is responsible for the successful
completion of the task or project.

This evaluation may be conducted by one or more others, or may be done by the individual himself or herself.

The individual is obligated to be honest, forthright, and transparent in his or her explanations and justifications.


Basic Accountability Model

Responsibility: It is assumed that the person to whom the task/project is assigned has appropriate: skills, knowledge, experience, authority, support, and resources to plan and implement the task. It is incumbent upon the person delegating the task to clearly articulate the expected outcomes, how the task relates to the organization’s goals/strategies, checkpoints, and ultimate due date for completion of the task.

Actions: The person who assigned the task/project is expected to check-in periodically to assess progress and offer assistance as needed. This is vitally important at the outset of the project, when the responsible person is engaged in planning.

Results: Results should be monitored periodically, not simply at the end or near the end of the project. Adjustments to plans and actions should be made accordingly. The responsible
needs to keep abreast of progress and advise the person delegating the task of any variations to expectations, positive or negative.

Accountability: Accountability typically takes the form of a meeting where the responsible person is required to explain what happened and why the outcomes were as they were. This meeting is referred to as “the accountability session.”

It is vitally important to be aware of the difference between responsibility and accountability. Responsibility occurs when the task/project is assigned. There may be an implicit or explicit expectation that the person responsible for completing the project will be held accountable for its outcomes at different times during or at the completion of the project.

Keep in mind that accountability is the “evaluation of results, planning, actions, and outcomes of a project.” It’s impossible to evaluate results or anything else when the project is assigned. Something must happen and some sort of outcome or results must be manifested before anything can be evaluated. Making someone responsible does not mean that person will be accountable.


Accountability Is a Choice

Accountability is basically explaining, or justifying, actions and results to someone. There are several factors that influence how the accountable person explains or justifies what
happened. For example, if the accountable person is

The extent to which a person is honest or straightforward in explaining his or her actions to the salient others is a choice. There are many factors that

An implicit expectation is a “felt” accountability that arises from personal feelings of obligation, reciprocity, or commitment to others, especially a salient other. For example, a spouse is expected to remember the birthday of the other or the anniversary of their wedding. It’s an “unspoken” expectation that “feels” like an obligation. An example of reciprocity and how it differs from a felt obligation associated with accountability may be helpful.

Two very good friends are out on a business lunch. One of them happily pays for both lunches. When the other friend offers to pay for his or her lunch the person who paid says: “Don’t worry about it. It’s my treat.” The other will say something like: “Thank you, I’ll get the next one.” If the friend who bought the lunch never expects to be repaid or never mentions it, the person who received the lunch is not accountable. There was no expectation of repayment. The guest may feel the need to reciprocate, but he or she is not accountable to do so.

Accountability can be confusing. To make understanding it easier, this document focuses on explicit accountability. That’s the accountability that exists when someone or a group is formally charged with a task, a job, a project, etc. and expected to explain or justify the results of their efforts.


Part 1: Core Concepts:

  • There’s a difference between personal accountability and accountability within organizations
    • Organizational Factors influencing accountability
    • Personal Factors influencing accountability
    • The two are combined inside organizations
  • Most contemporary theories/books on accountability are based on:
    • Personal integrity (Oz Principle)
      • Cite why personal integrity is a problem
      • Cite examples from business and education
    • Effective communication (Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability)
      • Concept is good – remove threatening, offensive questions
      • Does not have learning and future application components
    • Results (Results-Based Accountability)
      • Cite problems from research
      • Cite examples from business and education
    • Consequences (Positive and Negative Consequences)
      • Positive – personal benefits, suitability, attainability, fair, not long lasting, no long-term benefit to the organization
      • Negative – rat example – learn to avoid the punisher
  • Conclusion: These aren’t working
  • Need for a New Paradigm
    • One that increases organizational capital (cite research attesting to benefits of intellectual capital)
    • That provides competitive advantage (increased knowledge and skills, more productive teams, self-managing/self-controlling – cite examples from increased collaboration and reduction of conflict in production)
    • Based on Learning > NOT Results or Consequences
      • Results are backwards looking at things that cannot be changed
      • Learning is forward looking that leads to planned change


Part 2. What Is Accountability

  • Need clarity regarding accountability – it is often confused with responsibility
    • Definitions
      • Dictionary Definition
      • Other Authors’ Definition
      • Research Definition
    • Basic Accountability Model
      • It’s not that simple
      • Problems with definition and confusing responsibility with accountability
      • Driving and Restraining Forces
    • FirstStep’s Definition
      • Three Components: Ownership, Answerability, Learning
      • Focus on Learning and Thought Processes
      • What’s Missing from Other Definitions
      • Advantages


Part 3. The Accountability Process: A new paradigm

  • Introduction
    • The accountability process is intended to increase knowledge and skills by surfacing and sharing ideas at the outset, during, and at the completion of projects.
      • Assigned Task
      • Plan and Implement
      • Account for Outcomes
    • The knowledge gained from this accountability process should be shared throughout the organization by utilizing internal WIKIs or learning management systems that can make accessing information quick and easy from any mobile or desktop device whenever and wherever needed.
    • It is recommended that accountability be a team activity, that is, the entire team should be involved throughout the entire accountability process to add their insights and to gain from the insights of others.
  • Phase One: Expected Results or Outcomes
    • Proper delegation starts with front-end explanation of what the expected results or outcomes are, it includes:
      • Statement of problem or situation
      • Reason for change or project
      • Initial thoughts on causes
      • Initial thoughts on who should be involved and what their roles are
      • Initial thoughts about potential obstacles (people, structure, systems, technology, leadership, processes, etc.)
    • Clearly stated expectations regarding specific goals, deadlines, costs, limitations, etc. which are repeated by the employee to confirm understanding of the above
    • When tasks are properly delegated, it is difficult for the responsible person to not own the results
  • Phase Two: Planning
    • Planning begins with a discussion about the employee’s initial thoughts on how he or she will proceed at the outset of the project
    • The employee lists potential obstacles (people, structure, systems, technology, leadership, processes, etc.)
    • The manager listens and adds his or her thoughts about how to proceed
    • When planning is done effectively, there is increased commitment to the project’s success since the employee feels he or she is being fully supported
  • Phase Three: Implementation
    • Implementation of most projects occurs in phases. Periodic discussions regarding progress during each phase of the implementation cycle as well as within each cycle. These should be more frequent at the outset of a project and less frequent as the employee gains confidence and the project is progressing effectively.
    • The initial meeting of the implementation phase should be the presentation of an implementation plan that is based on information gained from the planning sessions and follow up discussions with people who will be a part of or impacted by the project.
    • A key feature of accountability sessions during the implementation phase is a summary of what has happened (how successful or unsuccessful the plan has been, explanations for the success or lack thereof, and a conversation about how to proceed based on what has transpired, what has been learned, and what is expected in the future.)
  • Phase Four: Learning
    • At the conclusion of the project, the responsible person fully own the results. These cannot be changed. Considering that the manager and team has been involved in discussions from the project’s inception through its completion, the success or failure of the project is shared among all those involved. The employee assigned the project is still
      accountable for and the owner of the results, but success or failure is not solely that person’s.
    • Rather than dwell on results, the focus of the final accountability session is on surfacing knowledge and skills gained from the project.
    • These are recorded and entered into the organization’s knowledge repository and made accessible to all.
    • There are two outcomes, 1) the success or failure of the project – did it meet the expectations or goals and 2) knowledge and skills gained from the experience.
    • Hopefully, the project is successful. This accountability process increases that likelihood. Even if it isn’t there is a tangible, positive outcome… increased knowledge and skills that increase the organization’s intellectual capital and potential competitive advantage.


Part 4. Increasing Accountability within Organizations

  • Four Levels of Accountability within Organizations
    • Organization Level (include shareholders and boards)
    • Management Level
    • Team Level
    • Individual Level
  • Accountability Factors at Four Levels
    • Organization Factors
      • Organization Culture
      • Supporting Mechanisms
      • Process vs Results Orientation
      • Effective Rewards and Recognition
      • Learning Focus
    • Leadership Factors
      • Leaders as Role Models
      • Hold People Accountable
      • Positive Relationships with Employees and Peers
      • Management Style
    • Team Factors
      • Team Embeddedness
      • Clear Roles and Expectations
      • Enforced Norms
      • Team Interaction Skills
    • Individual Factors
      • Perceptions of Organization
      • Feelings of Competency and Self-Efficacy
      • Strong Sense of Obligation to Meet Team Expectations
      • Not Afraid of Failing
      • Open to Feedback
  • Organization Level
    • Performance Management: Looking forward, not backward
    • Rewards and Recognition
  • Management Level
  • Team/Department Level
    • Onboarding
    • Embeddedness
    • Team Skills
      • Collaboration
      • Decision Making
      • Confronting Others
      • Disagreeing
      • Conflict Resolution
  • Individual Level
    • Commitment
    • Ownership
    • Answerable


Putting It All Together – The Accountability Process

New Paradigm – Focus on Learning not Blame

  • Problems associated with blame
  • Blame is like