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Creating a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

Holding People Accountable is SIMPLE!

Creating a culture of accountability in any environment is hugely important – so why does the word “accountability” make folks cringe? There is no doubt in my mind that accountability is:

  1. Misunderstood in most organisations
  2. Associated with blame; after all when was the last time you heard someone say “Who is accountable for this success?”
  3. A positive factor in the success of teams and organisations

Let me now say that, while I am interested in politics, I have no political affiliations with any party whatsoever. That said, I have just watched the lunchtime news, during which an opposition MP declared that “the government must be held accountable for their actions in this COVID 19 crisis”.
My first thought was, well he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, that’s what opposition MPs from any party would say? Then I began to wonder if he knows what the word “accountability” actually meant in practice?

Ironically, I spent yesterday delivering a workshop for some great folks at Heras, and part of the session explored the creation of a culture of accountability. I have also written before on this subject. Yesterday I was actually asked what it is to hold someone accountable. I have to be honest, it’s a good question.

culture of accountability

What is Accountability?

There are many definitions of the word. I mean, what do you think of when you hear it? In the context of work, one of my favourite definitions is that offered by Patrick Lencioni, author of The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, who says it is:


‘The willingness of team members to remind each other when they are not living up to the performance standards of the team.’


In the book, Lencioni writes about the difference between a manager holding their team accountable, and the peer to peer accountability that the above definition alludes to – which is so rare in my experience and that of my colleagues at Eagle Training.
I take the view that it’s not possible to ask people to accept accountability for their action (or their inaction) if they don’t know what it actually means. The good news is that there is a SIMPLE process that you can follow as a leader or manager to create a culture of accountability.
I would like to say that I came up with the process, but that would not be true. It’s actually the work of Torben Rick for which I am very grateful. He once said that the best organisations don’t just cascade objectives, they also cascade meaning. I really like that.

The SIMPLE Process – six steps to creating and maintaining a culture of accountability

The six steps in the SIMPLE process are:

Set clear expectations

People need to know and understand what you as their manager expect of them before you can legitimately hold them accountable; they are not telepathic you know! So, make sure that you are absolutely clear about what the team member needs to do – i.e. what they have to do, by when and to what standard, and that they really do understand. One of the biggest barriers to creating and maintaining a culture of accountability is setting ambiguous objectives

Invite commitment

Once the task or objective is clear and understood, you need to make sure that the team member is committed to the standards and expectations. Also, it will help if they understand how doing so will be of benefit to them and the team. As Rick says, “Just because your employees know what to do doesn’t mean they’ll do it. After goals and expectations are set, employees need to commit to achieving them.”
Also remember that, from a motivational perspective, your team member is more likely to commit when they ‘buy-in’ to the goal; when they have context for each assigned task. Team members are more likely to connect to a goal when they understand how this goal fits into the ‘bigger picture’ and why achieving it really matters.

Measure progress

This is pretty much what it says on the tin. If you can’t measure it, your ability to hold someone accountable for a task will be difficult. Information is needed to hold your employees accountable to the expectations that have been agreed upon.

Provide feedback

After completing the previous steps, the next thing to do is ensure that you give feedback. This feedback works as a performance indicator. I have found that people’s productivity increases when they have a challenging goal, and receive feedback about the progress they are making towards that goal. It would be nice to think that you will only have to give positive feedback but, this is not the case. People also need an opportunity to understand where they may be falling short of expectations. In this case please make sure that your comments are focused on the performance and not the performer, and that you offer your support to the person concerned.

Link to consequences (or outcomes)

Now, this one is a little bit more difficult. because you have to be prepared to understand that it might be necessary to use the stick as much as the carrot depending on the person’s style of motivation. For further information on how these styles I suggest, this article might be useful for you.
One thing is for sure and that is that folks need to understand the consequences of not fulfilling the agreement. This may be uncomfortable for some reading this, but fair and reasonable consequences are necessary if a culture of accountability is to be created and maintained.
However, it is also important to explain the positive benefits or results if the team member in question does achieve what is being asked of them; and what they have agreed to.

Evaluate effectiveness

This is the final step, but need not be left totally until the project or task has been completed. However, once it has been achieved you need to assess the project as a whole from multiple perspectives. This process should include all stakeholders including the team member, you, and the team. Good questions to ask now would be:

Has the task been achieved to the standards agreed?

What worked well?

What could be done differently next time or even better if….?

There are many models that you could use to create a culture of accountability. Please remember that you cannot hold someone accountable who does not accept it. This also applies to those who don’t have the necessary control or influence to do what you are asking.

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