Accountability: A Little Clarity, Please
by Lawrence E. Wharton and Richard Roi

Most leaders understand that accountability is consequences for one's actions, and that it is critical to effective unit/organizational functioning. Notwithstanding this awareness, many leaders have great difficulty exercising proper accountability. The most significant reasons for this appear to be a culture of conflict avoidance; managers getting little if any training and encouragement in how to deal with accountability; and virtually no rewards and reinforcement from above for dealing well with accountability.

You are all no doubt aware of individuals who are not held accountable for consistently missing meetings, presenting poor work, using sarcasm on others, inadequate modeling, failing to assist in collaborative projects, mis-representing (also known as lying), treating staff poorly, and undermining others. Based on our informal research, not holding people accountable costs leaders between 15% and 30% of their time. In other words, cleaning up the messes created by inadequate or no accountability wastes that much of a leader's valuable time. And this does not take into account staff time losses. Worse, since the clean up usually fails to address the underlying performance or behavior difficulties, those are repeated, endlessly.

In an ideal world each person would hold her/himself answerable to certain agreed-to standards of performance and behavior - self-accountability. Sadly, that is rare. Next in desirability is that peers hold a person accountable. Somewhat less desirable yet is that the supervisor enters the fray. Last, and hardly desirable at all, is the intrusion of an outside force (one external to the unit).

As one moves from self-accountability to outside force, less freedom is available to do what needs to be done with the least effort and the smallest negative impact. If I voluntarily hold myself accountable for not meeting a deadline, that is clearly preferably to having you, my peers, do so. And whatever the consequences, they will be less painful. By the time an outside force (could be the boss's boss, a key customer, a government agency, or even a board member) becomes involved, a solution is likely to be imposed: one that may wreak far more havoc than lower levels of accountability would have engendered.

Example: A mid-level manager we are aware of oversaw a group of customer service supervisors. One supervisor, a major conflict avoider, allowed his staff of customer service representatives to become quite lackadaisical and unconcerned about customers. Another, a belligerent abuser of staff, created such turnover that customer service in his unit scarcely deserved the name. These two states of affairs persisted for over a year in spite of continuous complaints. The manager admonished both supervisors, but took no further action. Finally, when customer complaints started reaching higher organizational levels, and a couple of larger customers threatened to defect to competitors, the bad stuff hit the fan. The CEO summarily fired the two supervisors and demoted the manager. Even with new leadership, corrective action took 6 months. The CEO thought he had done great stuff! A dreamer! What he really did was to fail to stay in touch with a critical operations area for over a year, fail to establish feedback mechanisms to hear what was really happening in customer service, and fail to assist his manager (and the two supervisors) to become more effective.

Leaders who wish to maintain their freedom of action (not to mention their jobs) must ensure that accountability occurs at the lowest possible level, with self-accountability clearly the ideal. Naturally, the leader has to create the environment in which this can happen. If the leader him/herself is an accountability disaster---well, good luck!

People have to feel safe and they have to know the standards, which should be very high, indeed! No one disagrees that safe environments are good things; very few leaders have any idea of how to create one. While this is a subject for a future CEO Refresher, I can say here that trust is often spoken of as being present when leaders do what they say they will do. But this is insufficient, for I may be utterly reliable in doing what I say I will do, but still be abusive to staff, a conflict avoider, unreasonable, or unable to control my needs in a huge variety of other ways.

Safety is about trust. If I do not trust you, I will have little or no sense of safety that you will not act in ways that damage me. This is different from responsibly holding a person accountable. The damage that people are interested in is how they are treated interpersonally. The problem for leaders is that they will not be trusted if they cannot control their own behavior. Thus, if the leader has any of the characteristics I just listed (i.e., conflict avoider), he/she will be deemed untrustworthy to some considerable degree.

This clearly compromises accountability. Even if the leader is correct in wanting to hold a staff member accountable, if his/her manner reflects lack of respect or acting out of personal (and unrelated) needs, among others, the outcome will be unsatisfactory for all. As one example: a client of ours has a high need to be respected (not unreasonable, but the problem is in the "high"). When holding a staff member accountable, he sees the staff member's disagreement, or even anger, as a lack of respect for him. Since few people are consciously aware of their deep needs, the manager acts on that assumption and reduces the session to one of his winning, rather than to the staff member's better understanding why he is being held accountable and what can be done about the future.

Even beginning to remedy an accountability problem is very demanding on the leader, for there is one absolute: leaders must ALWAYS start with themselves. Unless a staff person's problem is truly a one-time thing, the leader is responsible in some way for what happened. In other words, if a leader is dealing with a pattern of behavior that has existed for some time, he/she has intentionally or inadvertently reinforced the very thing for which the leader is about to hold a person accountable. To make the accountability most productive, the leader must acknowledge, before addressing the staff member's culpability, that she/he has failed to address this issue before, or has not done so adequately. The leader cannot act as though the staff member's problem performance or behavior has nothing to do with the leader. This will create a feeling of unfairness in the staff member and undermine trust in the leader, seriously comprising accountability and certainly the chance of further developing this person.

Are you pushing accountability to the lowest possible level?
Are you aware of what needs of yours may compromise accountability sessions?
Do you know what you are reinforcing, and are you effectively dealing with it?

Ask yourself the above questions. Then ask others (direct reports, peers, and your boss) to respond to those same questions in reference to you. Compare your answers to theirs. Be ready for MAJOR perceptual differences!

Lawrence E. Wharton and Richard Roi are partners of a leader behavior consulting firm (Wharton and Roi) that focuses on the connection between leaders' behavior and unit/organizational effectiveness. The firm has worked with clients such as Costco, Boeing, Oregon Dept of Health, The Oregon State Bar, Sharp Microelectronics, Portland Community College, The Casey Family Program, and many others.

Contact Lawrence E. Wharton, MBA at 3931 E. Skyline Dr. Tucson, AZ 85718, Phone: (520) 577-0823, Fax: (520) 577-3644, e-mail: and visit .

Also by Lawrence E. Wharton - What’s REALLY Getting Reinforced? and You Can’t Get There From Here: Why “Structural” Changes Won’t Cut It | More on Creative Leadership and Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Lawrence E. Wharton and Richard Roi. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading