Accountability | What Does It Really Mean?

Accountability comes up as one of the top 3 issues on the minds of CEOs in almost every conversation I have with them.[hr][dropcap]T[/dropcap] hey know, deep in their bones, that unless they build an organization that embeds this elusive concept into its DNA, the chances of achieving their goals will be equally elusive.


When does Accountability begin?

“When is it no longer my responsibility to get people to complete their assignments … and where does their responsibility to perform begin?” a North Bay CEO asked me recently.

“Your responsibility never ends … and neither does theirs,” I said.

“Your job is to work tirelessly to build accountability into the organization so that your team understands that being held accountable is the cornerstone of a strong, successful organization. It is not punitive.”

Recently, we’ve discussed personal accountability as the “singular touchstone of professional success over which we have the greatest control.”

We’ve also discussed the After Action Review a valuable teaching tool that reinforces accountability and inspires a culture of continuous improvement.

An organization focused on accountability might be seen as the thread that connects our personal accountability

–talking the talk, and, the After Action Review as …

walking the walk.

But what is it, really?

What is Accountability … Really?

In simple terms, accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility for our actions.

It’s being reliable and making certain that the commitments we make, from the perspective of others, have been kept. For a responsible culture to prevail, each of us must make certain that those commitments are honest – and honored.

At the core of accountability is the requirement to set clear expectations.

It’s not enough to say,

“we’re expecting you to do a good job,” or

“we’re counting on you to deliver the results we need”

because those declarations lack specificity.

There’s no substitute for Setting Clear Expectations

The accountability process must begin with clear expectations so that everyone knows what “good job” and “needed results” mean.

If you’ve ever sat down with your boss (or your shareholders or directors) during your performance review, you’ve probably often wondered why the expectations he thinks you missed weren’t very clear in the first place.

[pullquote]Nine-tenths of life’s serious controversies come from misunderstanding.” ~ Louis Brandeis[/pullquote]

The S.M.A.R.T. acronym will save your bacon every time

One time-honored tool to keep in your pocket is the S.M.A.R.T. acronym – Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic and Trackable.

It’s OK to say,

“After we agree on an outline not later than noon on Tuesday, I’ll need the final report on my desk by 4 p.m. on Thursday.”

There’s no doubt about the objective, the timeline or the intended result and it’s clear who owns the assignment. Applying the S.M.A.R.T guideline to every objective ensures that your expectations are unequivocally clear.

Beware the Victimization Mentality

One proven enemy of this culture is a victimization mentality.

There seem to be mitigating circumstances in everything we do, but an environment of accountability stresses,

“what else can I do”,

instead of rationalizing

“why it can’t be done.”

You’ll find the victim’s mentality wherever you find people …

  • justifying their actions,
  • excusing their ineffectiveness, or
  • rationalizing poor performance.

Be eternally vigilant about victim’s stories and how circumstances prevented them from achieving the objective. Look for those who always want to know,

“what else can I do?”

What did you mean again?

When people don’t meet clear expectations, ask them what they meant when they said,

“they were going to get that done”, or

“what should I expect the next time you say you’ll get something done?”

If it continues, it’s OK to say,

“I’m losing confidence because”

to reinforce your dissatisfaction and to pronounce the accountability bargain as broken.

Do it productively and in a positive manner, but in all cases, do it so the expectations contract you have set is clear and unequivocal.

Expectation vs. Performance

As for that line between expectation and performance?

A bright line only exists when good leaders follow S.M.A.R.T guidelines and set clear expectations and timelines.

Once you’ve done that successfully, you’ve established a baseline from which you can effectively deal with an individual who fails to meet these objectives.

In a responsible organization, you can easily differentiate unacceptable employee performance from a failure to set clear expectations, and confidently make appropriate adjustments.

This is an ongoing process that is essential to achieve an accountable organization that creates a culture of trust, integrity and focus … and gets things done.

Question: What is the most important tool of Accountability you’ve employed to help your team get things done? You can easily add your comment below, or by visiting our Facebook Page or @Exkalibur on Twitter. I visit them every day and look forward to discussing these ideas and concepts with you.

Lary Kirchenbauer

I am a leadership coach and a professional author and speaker, facilitating leadership groups among CEOs and senior business leaders in the SF Bay area. I am actively blogging at with more than 500 published articles.

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