Why We Need to Hold People Accountable title
By Louise Dunn

ow do you define “accountability?” For some, it is about commitment to achieving results and follow-through. For others, it is about discipline and getting the job done. Some will say it is about being responsible or reliable, and others will say it is about taking the blame when something goes wrong.

While the personal definitions of accountability vary, most people know accountability by the ripple effects they see. A lack of accountability appears as delays in team performance, missed deadlines, unfinished work at the end of a shift, lack of punctuality, frustration and disengagement with the team.1 The effects become compounded as disengagement leads to low trust and low morale—even resulting in the departure of great employees. Eventually, the lack of accountability affects the financial performance of the business.

Spotlight on Accountability
Accountability cannot be delegated to specific team members, nor can it be forced on a person or team; they must take it upon themselves. Accountability often gets a bad rap—as if the mere mention conjures up anger between team members and negativity in the workplace. So, when you hear “accountability,” what is the feeling you experience in your gut? Do you feel motivated and engaged, or do you feel stressed and uncomfortable?

In addition, the term is often used as an excuse; “lack of accountability” is such an easy management group-speak phrase to cover any error, problem or failure to achieve a goal by the team. Before jumping to the conclusion that there is a lack of accountability on your team’s part, get the team to agree on what accountability is and to understand that it is a positive word. Being held accountable or having a culture of accountability should not be about punishment or trying to catch someone doing wrong. Instead, it should be about each person holding themselves to a higher standard of job performance and welcoming feedback.

Accountability must be about building solid working relationships and improving job performance. Understanding accountability in a more positive light means that team members can take ownership and work towards success.

Creating Accountability Culture
To create an accountability culture, it is important to be clear. A business must achieve clarity in these five areas:2
1Clear expectations.
State expectations and outcomes and discuss how to go about achieving those expectations. Do not simply say, “You need to do better talking to clients.” Detail what should be said and how to say it.
2Clear capabilities.
Provide resources to develop the skills necessary to achieve what is expected of the person and task.
3Clear measurements.
Discuss what success will look like, what numbers are expected to change and what milestones should be reached.
4Clear feedback.
People on the team need to know where they stand. Ongoing, real-time feedback is necessary.
5Clear consequences.
Being clear makes it much easier to know what the consequences will be, such as repeat training for performance improvement, rewarding a job well done or releasing the team member.
The first thing to put into practice—after acknowledging the importance of clarity—is communication in the form of regular conversations. This means not only communicating what is expected, but also communicating feedback (which many employees have negative feelings about). Regular, consistent communication solves many of the roadblocks to accountability.

The other thing to note is that not all feedback is bad. Reread about clear consequences; “rewarding a job well done.” Most managers dislike giving negative feedback, and if there was ever a formula for avoiding the unpleasant task, it is in being clear so that rewarding a job well done is more common than giving negative feedback. An accountability culture makes work more enjoyable for everyone.

A culture of accountability requires consistent action by the owners, leaders and managers to manage job performance. It does not mean strong-handed tactics, a “my way or the highway” mentality or micromanaging—these only serve to demoralize, demotivate and crush what little performance is given. So, if getting angry and “cracking the whip” to get everyone into “accountability shape” is not the correct answer, what is?

digital illustration of a woman sitting on a cloud with her laptop
The first thing to put into practice—after acknowledging the importance of clarity—is communication in the form of regular conversations.
Management’s Role
Research has shown that managers are weak at holding people accountable.1 This may be due to the Iceberg of Ignorance Theory.3 This theory states that only 4% of problems are known to top managers, 9% to middle managers and 74% to supervisors. Therefore, a manager may be unable to hold anyone accountable if they are unaware of problems. Unfortunately, ignorance is not bliss when problems grow to the size of icebergs.

Next, consider the management team. It may be a team of one (such as the owner, manager or supervisor) or a team of two or more. Regardless of the number, they may not have been trained in being “clear” and may not have the authority to deal with particular problems. Accountability becomes even more challenging when the management team lacks a clear understanding of the company’s strategic plans and goals. Perhaps the iceberg theory can include knowledge about business goals.

The first step in having a culture of accountability must begin with strengthening the management team by giving them the resources and skills to change the culture. The management team should not be on an accountability “gotcha” mission. If the management team is always angry with people when they fall short, it is unproductive and kills team motivation and performance.2

To avoid this, the management team must be trained how to:

  • Give clear communications (set clear expectations).
  • Teach people via learning styles (clear capabilities).
  • Understand the strategic plans of the business (clear measurements).
  • Provide ongoing, real-time feedback (clear feedback).
  • Be consistent (clear consequences).

Accountability starts at the top. Ensure that the management team is not guilty of “deadly sins” against accountability, such as avoiding monitoring and not giving feedback, fostering the blame game, failing to recognize success or avoiding holding people accountable. In essence, accountability is a two-way street whereby management is counting on the team to do what they said they would do—and the team wants to know that they can count on management to do what they said. The management team must have the tools to set up a culture of accountability and examine their own words and actions.

Set for Success
Now that the management team has the tools for holding people accountable, they can successfully cultivate a culture of accountability by drawing a line…an accountability line, that is.4
See it, Own it, Solve it, Do it. Blame game, finger-pointing, "victim," "not my job"
But how do you get your team to be above the accountability line? Build an accountability pyramid from the bottom up by following these steps:

  1. Start with leadership with direction (clear roles, clear goals, clear direction and an understanding of the strategic plan).
  2. Ensure buy-in by the team (individual ownership).
  3. Have job descriptions (the framework for how work will be done).
  4. Create standard operating procedures (SOPs) (clear processes and the ability to improve the processes).
  5. Train the team on those SOPs (consistency, quality, efficiency, resources and skill development).
  6. Measure the progress of the team (proper oversight).
  7. Give and receive feedback via multiple routes.
  8. Have rewards and consequences (not punishment, but rather a mentality to own it, admit it, improve it and be rewarded for it).
Clinical signs of a culture of accountability (i.e., you will know when your team is functioning above the accountability line) include:

  • Displaying an attitude of ownership; they think and act like an owner.
  • Automatically assuming accountability on their part; it isn’t forced upon them.
  • Measuring their own progress because they are committed to the goals.
  • Developing solutions to overcome obstacles.

In the end, the team will be able to trust each other to perform at their highest levels. The final test for a culture of accountability is, can you say, “Every patient, every client, every record, every time?”

In a time when it is challenging to attract and retain great team members, it helps to promote a culture of accountability. When it is part of the culture, the team knows what it means, why it is essential, how it looks in daily operations, when there is a failure to achieve it and what to do when there is a failure. The gossiping and finger-pointing will be replaced with clear directions on holding everyone accountable.

According to the authors of Who Will Do What by When, “Creating a culture of integrity and accountability not only improves effectiveness, it also generates a respectful, enjoyable and life-giving setting in which to work.”

So, take some time to step away from feel-good gimmicks that attempt to give a quick fix to a poor workplace environment and instead put some effort into creating a culture of accountability.

  1. Lipman, Victor. (2016, March 24). The Best Managers Always Hold People Accountable. Forbes.
  2. Bregman, Peter. (2016, January 11). The Right Way to Hold People Accountable. Harvard Business Review.
  3. The Iceberg of Ignorance. Values-Driven Culture.
  4. Harstrom, Paul. (2020, January 1). 5 Takeaways After Reading: The Oz Principle.
Louise Dunn
Louise Dunn is a renowned award-winning speaker, writer and consultant. She brings over 40 years of in-the-trenches experience and her business education to veterinary management. Louise is founder and CEO of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting. SVMC works with veterinarians who want to develop a strategic plan that consistently produces results. Most recently Louise received many awards including the WVC Educator of the Year numerous times and VetPartner’s The Life Time achievement Award in January 2016.