Accountability: Myths and Realities

While visiting one of my clients I overheard a conversation between and salesperson and his manager. “Accounting messed up again,” he complained. “They delayed the finance paperwork and my client had to write an additional check to cover their first payment. He is threatening to take his business elsewhere next time. I am afraid I won’t get any referral business from this guy and I want someone’s head to roll in accounting. I bet nothing will happen. There is no accountability around here.”

Myth #1: Interpreting accountability as a punishment

Accountability is misinterpreted and misunderstood in many organizations. It is often interpreted as a form of punishment for sins committed. That is the first of the three myths of accountability. It is a punishment the person deserves who makes a mistake or demonstrates an incompetent act. The popular refrain is, “We must hold him/her accountable.” It sounds like an action just short of an execution.

I want to offer another possibility. Accountability is an ability not a punishment. It is an ability to explain or justify actions for which one is responsible. Accountability is also a condition where one is aware of the task for which they need to be accountable, they understand a predictable process for keeping that agreement, they agree to follow that process, and finally they know they will receive feedback if the agreement is not kept or the process did not work (there was too much variation).

So in my example above, who is accountable for the customer’s paperwork being delayed? The answer is NOT the accounting department. As we learned later, the salesperson contributed to this situation by not sending correct information to the accounting department in a timely manner. That poor hand-off caused a delay in accounting. 

Myth #2:  Holding people accountable to outcomes creates the best results.

Many leaders still believe that “holding people accountable to outcomes creates the best results.” This is problematic. Holding people accountable for outcomes creates unintended negative consequences such as cheating and/or a hoarding of critical information. In a Veterans Administration scandal, claim processors selected the easiest claims for processing in order to reach their goals and receive their bonuses. In the meantime, some of the sickest Veterans waited and suffered the most. Some were even ignored and some even died.

Myth #3 Not achieving a goal means something is wrong with the person.

Many leaders still believe that missed goals means there is something wrong with the person. This is not useful. In the example above, one of the main reasons accounting was unable to process paperwork in time (to avoid the customer complaint) was due to the salesperson (the same one who was complaining bitterly) failing to provide the necessary information to accounting on time. Accounting missed the goal, but accounting was dependent upon sales for the information. The irony is palpable.

The realities

To improve accountability, there are more useful realities. First, it is acceptable to hold people accountable to specific behaviors they can control. This creates awareness, new habits, trust, improved relationships, performance and predictability. Second, when a goal is not achieved on time it means there is likely something in the process that needs improvement. Blaming the person is not useful as it creates fear and avoids the real root cause. The real root cause is the method or process used to achieve the goal. In our example, it’s also not useful to blame the salesperson for the delay. It is useful to ask how to improve the salesperson’s process for communicating the information to accounting. If we are really interested in improving accountability, we need to embrace these ideas in place of the myths.

How can we manage accountability?

Holding employees accountable to their agreements (commitments) is the most effective strategy for high performance and accountability. An agreement is a specific, measurable and time sensitive task where the person responsible for the task has a predictable process available to complete the task and all factors are within the control or influence of the person. For example, we can make an agreement to arrive at work by nine every morning. We know when we need to get up and approximately how much time is needed to travel to work. We also know our method of travel (usually a car) is in good working order and is capable of getting us to work if we leave at the appropriate time. 

All factors are under our control. We have a predictable process except if we unexpectedly hit higher traffic one day. With one phone call we can let the appropriate people know we will be late. This protects our credibility and demonstrates we can manage our agreements. Accountability is really an ability to manage our agreements.

Feedback provides the key final step for our definition of accountability. In order to create trust we must expect employees to keep their agreements. We must expect they can be trusted to have integrity. We must expect them to do what they say they will do. When they fail to keep their agreements, we must remind them and bring it to their attention. This is the role of feedback.  Feedback provides confirmation that people kept their agreements. It provides confirmation that people have integrity.


Explain to everyone in the organization that they must manage their own agreements; and if they can’t, they will be held accountable. In other words, keep your agreements, let the appropriate people know when you can’t and/or give an explanation by describing the process change you intend to make to ensure the agreement is kept in the future. 

The salesperson needs to make an agreement to provide the necessary and accurate paperwork on time to accounting, and the customer will have no reason to complain. It’s not about accounting, it’s about accountability!

Accountability is covered in depth as part of Communico’s The MAGIC of Customer Relations – Module 3: Express MAGIC Accountability.

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