If You Are Holding People Accountable, Something Is Wrong (And it isn’t what you think.)

bigstock-Talent-management-concept-in-w-42340138All together now, finish this sentence—a traditional belief so embedded in our collective psyche that I can hear your answers through the internet: We need to hold people ________.

Accountable.  Cue the boos and hisses.

Why Hold People Accountable?

When your focus is on how to hold people accountable, it takes your focus off an important question: “Why do we need to hold people accountable in the first place?”

If you believe people need to be held accountable, what is your underlying belief? Is it that people cannot be trusted to do what you want them to do? Is it that people fail to follow through on what they commit to doing? Why is that? Is it because they are lazy and irresponsible—or worse, intend to do harm? How did you come to believe people cannot be trusted?

Too often, leaders hold beliefs based on faulty assumptions, prejudice, or bad data. Have you had an experience that caused you to believe that, given the chance, most people cheat, lie, and steal? Do you have proof to substantiate your belief that people will miss deadlines, fail to achieve their goals, and slack off if you don’t keep your eye on them?

Strange—because the evidence is overwhelming that people want to contribute, are willing to work hard, and feel better when they achieve agreed-upon goals. W. Edwards  Deming, the father of the quality movement in the U.S. and Japan, believed that 80 percent of nonperformance was most likely due to system failures. Today we know that distributive injustice (unfair allocation of resources) and procedural injustice (unfair or secretive decision-making and processes) are two primary reasons organizations lack employee work passion. Perhaps leaders need to look in the mirror when their people are not performing. Too often, holding people accountable is a kneejerk reaction based on a leader’s own fear of failure. It is time to challenge why accountability permeates our language and mindshare in the workplace.

Never Beat a Carrot with a Stick

If you are now thinking, “I have proof that people will fail to perform if they are not held accountable,” it may still be the fault of leadership. Take this familiar scenario. You incentivize your sales people to sell. You give them a bonus for selling a lot. A particular sales person isn’t making his numbers. No surprise here—we know that incentives and bonuses are not healthy or reliable ways for people to experience optimal motivation. Carrots simply don’t work. (If you disagree with this statement, let me know and we will provide you with ample evidence in future blogs.)

Back to the scenario. You need to hold this failing salesman accountable. You consider writing him up, having “the talk,” applying pressure, chastising him, or harassing him with the success stories of his team members. The insidious thing about accountability is that it promotes the use of pressure to get people to do what they probably already want to do—succeed.

“The only traditional motivation technique more undermining than a carrot to activating optimal motivation is the stick.”


The problem is that leaders don’t understand the undermining and short-term effect of carrots (incentives, bonuses, tangible rewards), so when those bribes don’t work, leaders assume it is the individual’s fault and put accountability measures—the stick—in place.

Try this for the next month: Think deeply about the beliefs underlying the notion of holding people accountable. What is the real purpose of accountability and what data supports the need for it? How would your decisions, actions, and leadership be different if instead of believing that you have to hold people accountable, you held this belief instead …

People live up (or down) to our expectations of them.

Watch how your people respond to your changed belief. Imagine what would be different if people lived up to your high expectations instead of hovering under your low ones.

Cue the high energy and optimism that lead to the results you used to hold people accountable for achieving.

About the author:

Susan Fowler is one of the principal authors—together with David Facer and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop. Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.

Editor’s note:  This post is the third in a five part series on beliefs that erode workplace motivation. You can read Susan’s first two posts in the series by clicking on Rethinking Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation and Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation, Part Two.

28 thoughts on “If You Are Holding People Accountable, Something Is Wrong (And it isn’t what you think.)

  1. I am shocked that this is taught as a management paradigm. Accountability is not discipline and is only a negative event if coming from an insecure manager. For a goal-setting performer, being held accountable to goals is absolutely essential to success. I would refuse to perform for a manager that was unwilling to hold me accountable. For a winner, accountability is a positive event, even if the conversation is to discuss disappointing results. The steps to success are paved with failure. How can we define failure, as a means of defining success, if we do not evaluate results?

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  3. Dear Buckie,
    I appreciate a reader who shares his or her thoughts — especially when they disagree with what I have written. It gives me the opportunity to clarify and learn. So first, thank you.

    The purpose of this series of five posts is to challenge five traditional beliefs that shape current approaches to motivation proven to undermine the true nature of human motivation. We know that people have psychological needs that need to be fulfilled in order to thrive and flourish in the workplace. When people have a positive sense of well-being, there are benefits that go far beyond the typical results we use to measure success.

    I hoped that my post would challenge leaders to consider their beliefs regarding processes and procedures designed to hold people accountable. It is important for leaders to question WHY they feel the need to hold people accountable because their underlying belief could be creating the very environment that, ironically, generates the mistrust and low expectations that people live down to (and promotes the need for accountability).

    It is interesting that in your comment, you say that as a winner, you appreciate accountability. It appears you have framed accountability as something positive because, indeed, you hold yourself accountable. But many people internalize accountability measures as pressure. They don’t have the skill to frame pressure as a positive feedback mechanism. This is a skill we are teaching individuals–how to reframe traditional organizational methods of motivation such as incentives (carrots) and pressure (sticks) from external motivators to internal choices.

    It sounds as if you are already doing this for yourself. But unfortunately, the evidence is clear that most people cave into the pressure, internalizing it as tension, stress, and a negative sense of well-being that undermines their creativity, innovation, decision-making, long term results, sustainable productivity, and health.

    Long, long response! And I don’t know that it will alter your view of the post or enhance understanding. If not, I would truly appreciate your feedback. I need and want to get better at interpreting the latest science of motivation so we not only focus on getting results, but on flourishing so those results can be optimized and sustained.

    • Susan, thank you for your response. I enjoy asking Why? and welcome the mental and psychological exercise. I do understand your post and the nature behind it. It seems that you are discussing checkers and I want to play chess. I have seen the negative effects of management on a workforce that is over-worked, under-paid, and frustrated. My response has been to hold the standard high and not waver in accountability. I have found that when accountability has a negative effect, there is a relationship issue that needs attention. This can obviously be quite the challenge in larger organizations. How can a new performer possibly have the passion of the owner without a relationship with the owner and a deep understanding of the owner’s vision and how it applies to the newest performer? So, we must ask all management to rethink their habits and get creative in guiding our workforce towards achievement.

      Thank you again, Susan, for the response! I appreciate the discussion.

  4. Buckie – I am trying to understand your evident self-drive and the seeming disconnect with your statement that “I would refuse to perform for a manager that was unwilling to hold me accountable. ” The statement suggests that you are not really self-motivated but need the additional external incentive of being held accountable. Can you help?

    • Great question and thank you for asking for the clarification. It does seem paradoxical. We are discussing management thought process. As a performer, I am 100% autonomous. I would much prefer a world where I am left with only self-management. However, as per our topic, I have always struggled with being held accountable to managers that are not as autonomous as I. The blog is to ask why we hold others accountable. My experience has been that when a manager is willing to hold me (a self-evident top performer) accountable; they are also secure enough to allow me the autonomony that I desire. However, when a manager seems to be insecure in position and does not hold me accountable, they will challenge my self-governing nature and tend towards micro-management. Thank you again for the question, Geoff!

    • I own a successful business that works closely with other businesses. I am very self-motivated and I will refuse to work for a leader who does not hold people accountable. Why? Because the self-motivated people end up doing most of the work when they have a leader that does not hold EVERYONE accountable for deadlines and the quality of work.

      In general, the self-motivated follower will have a hard time managing their time because so much more will be required of them when they are placed in a team with no accountability. Before I recognized this truth, I would end up doing 3 times the amount of work for a project to make it successful when leadership failed to insure that everyone does their parts. Someone has to do the work and it usually falls to the self-motivated.

      No thanks. I will not be on a team without accountability. It is the first thing I look for when evaluating where to spend my time.

  5. Ah, Bucky–let me know if this makes any sense:
    Do you consider “holding you accountable” as a means of giving you the autonomy to pursue and achieve your goal? In your mind, is the opposite of holding you accountable, micromanaging? If so, we may be using the term accountability differently. I am interpreting you to say that when a manager holds you accountable, she is giving you the autonomy you need to achieve your goal your way. Autonomy is one of the three basic psychological needs–so this works for you. It also seems that you appreciate a manager who is practicing Situational Leadership II–one who recognizes your capacity to achieve your goal and gives you the appropriate leadership style. In the case you described, you appear to be at D4 on a particular goal–a self-reliant achiever–who prefers a Style 4, delegating style, that is low in direction and support.

    • Autonomy is not adverse to accountability. You can hold people accountable to their own goals, too. Accountability is not micro managing. When on a team, each person can make and communicate their own goals as it fits into the overall goals of the organization or project. A good leader simply hold people accountable for doing what they said they were going to do and when they said they would do it.

      • Hi Rick–This is Susan responding directly instead of through proper channels! :). Question: Would you agree or disagree that there’s a difference between a leader holding people accountable versus people holding themselves accountable? I wonder what you think of this idea: People’s autonomy is undermined when they are held accountable, but people want to be accountable.

        There are better ways for people to exercise their autonomy and hold themselves accountable through optimal motivation best practices rather than traditional leadership pressure to hold people accountable.

        Still not sure I’m articulating this as well as I’d like. Your input would be helpful. THANKS! Susan

  6. Susan, your description of my psychological profile is accurate. However, I do not equate accountability to autonomy, nor do I think that accountability opposes micromanagement. Accountability is a regularly occurring conversation based on predetermined standard or goals. Because I am a self-reliant achiever, I have found that managers are either secure with me or insecure with me. Those that are secure will have that conversation of goals, standards, and accountability and tend to allow more autonomy. The insecure manager will not have a conversation about anything and will tend towards micromanagement and defensiveness. It seems to me that you are asking the principle of accountability to be lowered to match the level of the insecure manager.

  7. I find that the more I am micro-managed (the more I have to keep someone in the loop and receive step-by-step approval) especially for tasks and programs I have been doing successfully for quite some time, the less motivation I have to perform. If they won’t trust me to keep doing the good work I’ve been doing (ie, they’ve never told me I am not performing, my performance reviews are always scoring well above average, etc), it’s hard to want to keep improving and innovating. I found this general scenario to be the case when reorganisation results in a new manager (often internal transfer).

    So for me, the accountability issue Susan speaks of is this apparent need of managers to feel they have to know everything that is happening in their down-line rather than trusting their team and being willing to say to their upline, “I don’t the specifics to your question but I will check with my team and get back to you.” That way the team feels trusted and continually lifts towards higher expectations. There is actually an accountability built into that, but it is more around answering to stakeholders ( share holders, citizens, etc) rather than an internal trust issue.

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  10. Neil is Bang on, I have performed for years , well and with enthusiasm. However due to various re-organisation the responsibility for my third of the business has been wrested away from me without any formulated plan put in to replace the experience a tight team could apply to customer care and attention to detail. Now we have a huge problem with the way our store has been set up stock and Patient record files stored miles from the location they are needed. We are told all the time to “Challenge Behaviors” when something is done wrongly or a procedure is not followed . We also have things that are called “Standard Operating Procedures” The are set in stone to protect us all from litigation should our actions as health care professionals not go as well as intended. Yet I am asked (on average) twice a day to take Patients for appointments without access to the paper file. I am not enjoying the risk that this puts me and my Patient under yet it’s me that’s being “Held Accountable” for my attitude to being ordered to do something that goes against standard operating procedures. Ultimately if something from my department goes wrong due to any failure in supply of medical product … guess who will be “Held Accountable” .
    It’s Negative all the way and used to hid big and small failings everyday in my work place.

  11. Susan, in my humble opinion, you should distinguish between holding people accountable to minimum expectations (which is what your article begins with) versus holding people accountable to high expectations. You are absolutely right that “People live up (or down) to our expectations of them” – it’s known as the Pygmalion Effect and J Sterling Livingston wrote an excellent HBR article about this. Holding people accountable to minimum expectations, and the associated belief that people need carrots and sticks to perform, actually produces mediocrity. (Incidentally, most formal performance management systems are designed to set low expectations, which also leads to 70% of the workforce not engaged.) Changing your belief (people are willing and able to meet high expectations) is not sufficient – you then have to set high expectations (much easier said than done). The combination of belief and expectations becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that dramatically improves performance.

    “Holding people accountable” does have a negative connotation. It implies inspection and remedial action. However, we must still hold ourselves and others to those high expectations, especially regarding values and behaviors. It’s impossible to truly have expectations without accountability – that’s just wishful thinking. Without accountability, you merely have hope without the conviction of belief. This is why so many stated values are meaningless – no one is held accountable to acting consistently with the values. Accountability drives the required follow-through to guide, provide feedback, coach, etc.

    I should also point out that while low expectations (meet these minimum requirements or else) create unproductive pressure, stress, etc., high expectations and accountability (properly defined) do not. They actually produce the opposite effect – inspiring and engaging people. So while high expectations from managers are extrinsic, they appeal to the same intrinsic motivations you refer to. (Of course, all this in context of cognitive, ‘knowledge worker’ tasks – even carrots and sticks work well in non-cognitive tasks).

    Finally, while managers may initially set the high expectations and hold people accountable, in time they need to transfer that to the team. (There are some easy and highly effective ways to do that.) High-performing teams hold themselves accountable to high expectations – often higher than managers can set!

    On another note, while I agree with your arguments on carrots and sticks, Jack Welch does not (linkd.in/1gntDVG). Perhaps you can provide him with ample evidence in future blogs! Of course, he also believes in rank and yank despite the overwhelming evidence against it…

    My two cents…

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  13. Susan as a sales guy that has a goal… “300k in new business”. If I hit my goal in month 1 and get paid to close and hit my goal can I take the next 11 months off?

  14. Hung Kim, your question may help to make my case. (We will see 🙂 I look forward to understanding more about our readers’ points of view.)

    My original post suggests that if you have to hold people accountable it would serve everyone to answer the question “Why?” The answer(s) would prove enlightening.

    In the case you present, I am assuming that a “sales guy” who makes his numbers in a month and takes the next 11 months off is not a good thing. My question would be “Why is that a bad thing?” The answer might be: “We don’t want 11 months of wasted time.”

    It is not in the organization’s best interest to have individuals lying dormant for 11 months. It is also not in the sale’s guy’s best interest. So the question becomes: Why would the sales guy stop working after reaching his numbers? If the only goal the sales guy is “being held accountable for achieving” is a numbers goal, then that becomes his focus–to the detriment of other potentially valuable outcomes. When the focus is on holding people accountable for achieving external goals and not enough attention given to what we call more optimally motivating outcomes, the result is the scenario you described.

    What if we endeavored to help the sales guy understand why he is in sales? What if he could link fulfilling values and a noble purpose to his sales role? Then achieving his numbers is a by-product of doing meaningful work–and the last thing he’d want to do is stop doing meaningful work after one month of success.

    People are not dependent on accountability measures to hold them accountable when they
    experience the energy, vitality, and sense of well-being that comes from achieving goals through an optimal Motivational Outlook (they experience Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence because they are aligned with meaningful goals, linked to a noble purpose, and/or recognizing the joy that comes from the activity they are doing).

    When people work from a suboptimal Motivational Outlook (they are going through the motions, focused on tangible rewards, acting from fear, shame, or guilt if they don’t meet expectations), their efforts simply cannot be sustained over time, so accountability measures are necessary to whip them into action and keep them moving.

    When leaders depend on accountability measures, they typically miss the opportunity to help people shift from a suboptimal to an optimal Motivational Outlook. Accountability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    This is a sad phenomenon because it is unlikely that your sales guy who meets his $300,000 in new business sales goal in one month and wins a reward trip to the Bahamas will be a sales champion year after year. He’ll end up going somewhere else where he can find meaning in those other 11 months of his life.

  15. If you attempted this approach with a team of average performers, you would be out of a job in 3 months. This is idealistic advice at its very worst

  16. Dear Reality Check: Ha! That wasn’t the response I hoped for! Could you help me understand how you support your assumption and sense of reality? It would be helpful to understand your position. If these ideas were easy, I wouldn’t be blogging about them. But it is important to understand why they create such dissonance. If you provide a counter to my “idealistic advice”, I will be more than open to considering it.

    For example, it would be interesting to understand what you mean by average performers? Is there an upside or downside to being average in your opinion? Is there an opportunity loss for being average–to both the organization and the people who aspire to being average? How are average performers different than top performers who sustain their performance? How are they different than those who burn brightly and flame out–or those who “succeed” but don’t thrive?

    If an average performer is flourishing–if they find meaning and value in their work, then they are probably achieving their goals. So what’s the issue? In light of both the scientific research and my own anecdotal data, I guess I simply don’t understand your comment. I aspire to make my own comments more clear, so thank you for expressing your contrary opinion and challenging the way I express mine.

  17. I agree with Reality Check. There are many employees who don’t even meet the standard, let alone good, excellent or outstanding employee. The basic problem is their attitude followed by a lack of work ethic, the fact we live in an “entitlement” country, and some simply cannot think. Not kidding.

  18. Ms. Fowler – This post came up in a Google search so I am just reading it today and bringing it back to life. My question for you is this: “How does this concept apply to ‘taskers’ where they are assigned a duty as part of their core responsibilities? If the expectation is clear and they do not accomplish it, then what? Employees are not equally self-motivated and nor do i believe they should they be discarded for lacking that higher level of self-motivation. What are you suggesting is the in-between answer? Thanks for the post and spirited dialogue from all.

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