Quit Focusing on Accountability and Follow These 5 Steps Instead


I don’t like the word accountability. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way for some reason. I think it’s because it assumes the worst about people. When we talk about accountability, it always seems the assumption is a person is incapable of, or unlikely to, follow through on his/her commitments. So we spend a lot of time and energy creating systems, processes, or consequences to make the sure the person is held accountable.

I prefer the word responsibility. To me, responsibility has a positive connotation. It’s starting with the mindset that a person will be responsible if he/she is given the necessary tools and training. If a person is responsible, you don’t have to worry about him/her being accountable. Responsibility breeds accountability. Whereas focusing on accountability is only treating the symptoms of a performance issue, addressing responsibility is treating the root cause.

So how can leaders help their people develop an inherent sense of responsibility? Here’s five steps to get started:

1. Create a motivating work environment – You can’t motivate anyone. (What? Did he just say I can’t motivate anyone? Isn’t that one of my primary responsibilities as a leader?) Yes, I just said that. You can’t motivate anyone. Every person is responsible for his/her own motivational outlook. What you can do is create a work environment that allows your people to maximize their sense of autonomy, increase their level of relatedness with others, and develop competence in their work. Autonomy, relatedness, and competence are the variables that allow a person to be optimally motivated and it’s our jobs as leaders to foster an environment that brings out the best in our people.

2. Let your people take the lead in goal setting as much as possible – Think about your own experience. When have you felt the greatest sense of commitment to a goal? When you created it yourself (or had a hand in it), or when a goal was assigned to you? Most likely it was when you were involved in setting the goal because you had a sense of ownership. It was your goal, not someone else’s. Your people will exhibit more responsibility for accomplishing their goals if they are involved in setting them.

3. Be clear on expectations – If people are going to be responsible, they need to clearly understand the expectations of their commitment. Many times our frustrations with people not being accountable is due to a lack of clear expectations. Make sure people know why the goal is important, what the deadlines are, and what constitutes success. If the situation requires you to follow through with negative consequences, do so. Don’t make hollow threats.

4. Use the right leadership style – Your people have different levels of competence and commitment on each of their goals. It’s your job as a leader to flex your leadership style to provide the proper amount of direction and support your people need to accomplish their goals. If you don’t set your people up to be responsible and successful in achieving their goals, that’s on you, not them. (Hold yourself accountable…errr…responsible).

5. Let go – I’ve written previously about balancing control and responsibility. It’s easy to grab control from people when you see them underachieving or shirking their responsibilities. That doesn’t help your people develop responsibility and it only adds to your stress level and workload. If you’ve properly trained and equipped your people, you need to let go and let them succeed or fail on their own.

Starting with these five steps puts the onus on your people to live up to their responsibilities. It’s up to them to hold themselves accountable…to be responsible. The leadership mindset underpinning these steps is one of trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” Trust your people to rise to the occasion, to be worthy of your trust. Odds are they will prove themselves to be responsible and you won’t have to worry about holding them accountable.

Randy Conley is the Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts appear the fourth or last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.

6 thoughts on “Quit Focusing on Accountability and Follow These 5 Steps Instead

  1. Pingback: Quit Focusing on Accountability and Follow These 5 Steps Instead to Actually Get Things Done | Teacher related

  2. As one who uses the word accountability too often ( likely from coach school training) I love responsibility and you have converted me!

    Bernie Siegel, PCC   Executive Development, Career Coach and Strategist   Your Success Is MY Only Business

      Former Treasurer and Vice Chair, ICF Global Board Past President- International Coach Federation-NYC   http://www.berniesuccesscoach.com (917) 617-0910   Producer and Host-Coach Chat Radio    

    • Outstanding Bernie! You’re my first convert! Seriously, though, it’s not that accountability is bad, I just think responsibility has a more positive connotation and focus of what we as leaders are trying to achieve.

      My best,


  3. Pingback: 5 for Leadership-January 30th - Gary Runn

  4. Randy
    Accountable an Responsible could have different meanings as is the case in Project Management.
    Accountable is the person that will make sure that a job is done, but not necessarily who will do the job. E.g. a team lead
    On the other hand, we have the responsible person who will do the job. E.g. a developer, or programmer.
    Please see R.A.C.I. matrix for more details.

    Hope it helps


    • Good point Jorge. I’m familiar with RACI and that’s a good example of the importance of context when we talk about the differences between accountability and responsibility.

      Thanks for taking the time comment.


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