Values are just words, until our actions give them meaning

– Stephen de Groot


Have you ever been held Accountable for a process or a specific outcome that left you feeling less than good? Did it actually hurt? Were you confused, dazed and/or nauseous? Did the experience leave you disillusioned, demoralized or damaged? Well then, what you experienced probably wasn’t Accountability at all. It is much more likely that you were being unfairly blamed for something you were not fully aware of and/or, responsible for. It was not Accountability. Accountability shouldn’t hurt.

Unfortunately and often unintentionally, for many people, being held Accountable, can feel like being scapegoated, set-up, hung out to dry and/or thrown under the bus.

This article attempts to simplify the value and conceptualization of Accountability so that the experience of that value in operation can be affirming and meaningful. Offered herein, is a simple and highly practical assessment, so that we can be certain of how and who to hold accountable. Accountability must be something we all strive for, not something we run and hide from.

The Dilemma – A Good Thing Gone Wrong

Accountability is one of the most common organizational values critical for enhancing integrity, building trust and moving both people and companies forward. However, it is not the value itself per se, but the experience of the value in action, that determines whether integrity and trust are fortified.

In theory, accountability is something we should all strive for. It is simple, straightforward and admirable; when in operation Accountability inspires people and groups to build and sustain greater capacity and best results.

However, Accountability continues to exist as both an elusive and confusing phenomenon. Unintentionally and unfortunately Accountability has taken on a less-than-positive experience and for many people accountability feels more like blame and/or punishment than anything most people would say was honourable!

The Costs – They are MASSIVE

As stated in the articles The Power of Values Part I & II, value-incongruence, results from value confusion and value misalignment and represents one of the 5 major corporate killers The cost to employees and organizations overall are MASSIVE!

While the costs are vast, negatively impacting employee morale, engagement, climate, culture and organizational quality including the top and bottom lines, it is the reason behind the costs that should concern us most.

If the confusing and exceptionally uncomfortable experience that accompanies “Accountability” continues to persist, all human beings and the organizations they work for will NEVER even come close to realizing, never mind achieving, their full potential!

Because human beings are wired for safety; to protect themselves and those they care for, it follows then that people will avoid confusing and negative experiences and, will place their time, efforts and energies into keeping themselves safe, rather than developing themselves and/or moving the organization further! Especially if doing so, involves taking unclear and/or “unsafe” risks.

The Solution – Change the Experience and Change the Outcome

The good news is that changing a person’s experience of Accountability is 100% within our control. When we make the value and the experience of Accountability positive, affirming and valuable, we will minimize suffering and optimize human and organizational potential towards the greatest possibilities.

The following steps are intended to renegotiate the meaning and subsequent experience of Accountability:

  1. Admit and Embrace the Reality

If we can’t be honest about what we need to change, then it will never change. It’s time to admit that most people experience Accountability as less than positive or meaningful. This week alone I interviewed 200 managers in human services and corporate. I asked, “Have you ever been held accountable for something wherein your experience ranged from not-so-positive to absolutely horrible. The number: 100%! I’m done asking. It’s time to do something about it.

  1. Acknowledge that It’s not Your Fault

One of the most difficult things to do is admit that we are not living up to or in step with our values and what we say is important. However, it is easier to be more open to the idea, when we know that it is not totally our fault. In the article The Power of Values Part II, I proposed that we have never been taught and/or supported to operationalize important values.

  1. Simplify Accountability and Follow Through

Accountability means to take responsibility and/or account for one’s actions. An important piece that is missing in this simple concept of Accountability is the WHO and WHAT are guiding the actions? Where do the directives come from? Are they clear? Do they make sense? To whom are we being accountable to and, for what?

Accountability is derived from, built on and guided by the purpose, priorities and values of the organization. This is why they exist and why they must be more than just words on the wall! They are there for practical and functional reasons also!

Therefore, Accountability is only truly possible if the people expected to act and/or behave in a certain way can answer two very important questions:

  • What ‘s the Point of This?
  • Why Should I do IT in This Way?

What’s the point is the question that is connected to the “what”; the purpose, objectives and priorities of a specific function or set of functions within a role/job. The term purpose-critical refers to activities that are critical for moving the organization forward towards preferred outcomes. Every person must be able to answer the question, “what’s the point of this task?”. If there is no point, there really is no point!

Most employees who can answer this question on there own, or with the help of the their leader, will see the value in the task that they are expected to do and, in most cases will get it done. I encourage leaders, when asked, “what’s the point of this?” by their direct reports, to refrain from answering with responses like, “because I said so”, or “that’s the way we do things around here” or “because I had to do it when I was in that role.” These responses are not helpful, nor do they provide insight or guidance and subsequently motivation for the employee.

 Why should I do it in this way is the question that is connected to the “how” we are expected to carry out the specific action or set of actions. The “how” is tied to the vision and values of the department and/or organization or, at least it should be. Values are referred to as “Guiding” for this very reason. Values provide fuel as passion to purpose and can be potent sources of motivation and engagement for most employees.

Both questions MUST be answered if we are going to be successful at holding people Accountable in a manner that holds value and meaning for all involved.

Here is a simplified example:

Joe is a Project Team Lead for a company called Awesome Company. Some of the company values are Excellence, Trust, Empowerment and Our People First.

Scenario 1:

Joe is told by his manager to ensure that he conducts regular team meetings once a month to ensure that the project is on track and that important targets are being met.

Joe’s manager emphasizes several key responsibilities:

  • To schedule and facilitate regular meetings
  • To prepare an agenda for the meeting
  • To review and complete agenda in the meeting
Scenario 2:

Joe is told by his manager to ensure that he conducts regular team meetings once a month to ensure that the project is on track and that important targets are being met.

Joe’s manager emphasizes key responsibilities and offers clarity around expectations:

  • Ensure to schedule and facilitate regular meetings. Try to gather input from the team around preferences for structure and process as well as feedback on how the meetings are going. Getting input from our members is important because we try to put them first; it empowers them to have a voice and a choice and, it is really great for building trust.
  • Because we believe in excellence and empowering the group, prepare a detailed agenda ahead of time that outlines purpose, process and expected outcomes. To the extent possible, get input from team members. Don’t forget to do a personal check-in prior to business and check-out prior to the meeting end as this is good practice and, it builds trust by allowing members to connect with other team member. It also empowers members with the opportunity to have a voice.

Consider that Joe has completed all required tasks related to team Project Lead competencies; scheduled and facilitated 12 of 12 meetings; developed agenda and distributed agenda to members prior to meeting; facilitated project meetings and successfully completed all agenda items. Great! Or is it?

Imagine for a moment that the manager discovers, several meetings were rescheduled at Joe’s convenience and Joe was late for most of the sessions. The manager also discovered that in each meeting Joe rushed his own agenda, which was developed without input and, submitted to members approximately an hour before the project meetings.

REAL Accountability is only possible when the person acting on a task, can answer the questions, “what’s the point” and “why should it be done in this way?”

Accordingly, Joe can only be held accountable for his performance in scenario 2. If the manager attempts to hold Joe “Accountable” in scenario 1; for his performance to be in line with company objectives and values; there is a good chance that confusion, frustration and possibly anger will be experienced by at least one, if not both, parties.

Accountability shouldn’t hurt!

As leaders, it is critical for members to have clear expectations and understanding on the WHAT and the HOW. If members are not clear on these important items, then in actuality, we will be attempting to hold the wrong person accountable. It must always be the leader with whom we start the search for Accountability.


Stephen de Groot is the author of Responsive Leadership and is the Principal Designer and Facilitator of Leadership and Organizational Development for some of Canada’s Greatest Corporate and Human Service Organizations.