Four Principles for a New Model of Accountability

Accountability, everyone wants more of it, from our political leaders and institutions, businesses, schools, work colleagues, and even our children. Our general understanding of the word, however, and how to acquire more is imprecise and shallow. This is particularly disappointing in the work place context because increasing accountability can indeed improve performance. This post explores the term and proposes a new perspective, based on four principles that can increase accountability.

Let’s begin with definitions and the current perspective. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” The Random House dictionary offers a different perspective defining accountability as “the state of being answerable: obliged to report, explain, or justify something.” It is noteworthy that in its common usage, both definitions emphasize a backward-looking perspective; i.e. holding someone accountable for something he or she did. Often there is also a punitive overtone. It comes down to tracking deliveries and due dates with the question:  “Did you do it, and if so, what are you going to do about it?” Going further, the term is associated with the notion of “accounting” as in checking the score and determining who’s going to pay.

These commonly held notions are actually counter-productive to building more accountability in the workplace. The underlying enforcement and punitive notions about accountability do not create the optimum mood with a prospective collaborator. We need to develop a new perspective about accountability based on four principles:

1)     Accountability is forward-looking.  Accountability should be agreed upfront and not assigned at the end. As a task or initiative is being planned, the parties involved should be talking about who is going to be accountable for each outcome or deliverable. The performer consciously and explicitly commits and accepts responsibility. 

The critical portion of the conversation is at the beginning where the commitment is formed.

2)     Accountability is based on willingness.  There is a critical distinction between being willing to accept responsibility and being obliged to perform a function or produce a deliverable. In an organization characterized by a command-and-control culture, the performer is “obliged” to accept responsibility for delivering an outcome. Accountability is foisted on the performer simply by virtue of their position relative to the requester (e.g. the boss gives the orders).  In effect, the senior person ends up saying “I’m holding you accountable…” This is not the optimum means to boost accountability. Real accountability comes from “the performer’s mouth”.

A performer willing to accept responsibility explicitly declares their commitment and says in effect “You can count on me.”

3)     Accountability is about the quality of the dialog.  Building on the dictionary definition: “the state of being answerable”, what is important is the “answer” from the performer. Instead of the more usual presumption of accountability, the dialog begins with an explicit request that needs to be met with an explicit response. A conversation ensues and a specific agreement about expected results and due date is crafted. Having responded directly to the request and committed to the outcome, the performer has, in fact, taken on the accountability for delivery.

The quality of the dialog between the parties is much more important than recording the assigned due date.

4)     Accountability involves negotiation.  The requester must acknowledge their dependency on the performer by providing an opportunity for an honest response. The performer answers by sharing their capabilities and concerns regarding the request. Commitments that evidence real accountability involve a level of disclosure and dialog that is typically not present when tasks are assigned. Most managers assign tasks and expect accountability to follow along as part and parcel of the assignment. In effect, they are saying “I am assigning you this task and holding you accountable for getting it done on time”. This is not a dialog, only a one-way statement. The performer has not actually “answered”. The performer has not made any personal or public ownership of the task. While we are all familiar with position-power simply “assigning” accountability, a superior approach is to afford the performer a genuine opportunity to negotiate a response to the request.

Negotiation strengthens commitment. 


Focusing on accountability can be an effective lever for improving organization performance.  Accountability drives execution. To be most effective, however, we need to replace the current enforcement and punitive notions about the word with a new perspective that keys on upfront dialog and making clear agreements.

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