How to Fix an Accountability Problem on Your Team

“Everyone on a team knows who is and who is not performing,
and they are looking to you as the leader to see
what you are going to do about it.”
The late Collin Powell,
Former US Secretary of State
How many times in the past year have you heard, “We need more accountability on our team?”
When you’re frustrated and things aren’t going well — maybe your numbers are down, or people aren’t showing up the way you need them to, or team members aren’t meeting your expectations — it’s easy to turn to this all-too-common refrain. But when you announce that you “need more accountability here” what your team actually hears is: “You’re failing, and it’s your fault.”
No one is inspired by being blamed. While there may be times when your team could put in a more focused effort, a lack of accountability is rarely intentional. Any lack of accountability is a downstream problem that requires upstream action. It’s always better to prevent pollution than to clean it up. Leaders who default to a plea for accountability will inevitably hit a wall of frustration.
Further, verbalizing that there is “a lack of accountability” on your team can easily come off as threatening or condescending to people on the receiving end. This is hardly productive when you are trying to inspire change, and more importantly, it doesn’t help you get to the root of the problem.
Rarely is an accountability problem actually an accountability problem. It’s an agreement problem. The way you fix it is through a better agreement process:
  1. Clarify your expectations. Ambiguity breeds mediocracy. It also breeds frustration. Clearly communicate the measurable results you expect, including the kind of behavior that demonstrates your values.
  2. Create a compelling WHY. People need to understand how what you expect from them makes a meaningful impact toward the overall success of the organization and the people you serve.
  3. Assess fit. Be sure that people are passionate about what you expect from them, and that it lies in their wheelhouse of strength. Accountability without an element of passion is drudgery. Leaders are accountable to ensure that you have the right people on the team.
  4. Aim high. Expect high standards, both for yourself and others. Challenge yourself and those under your care with lofty goals, a commitment to results, and high expectations so everyone will grow and feel great about themselves at the end of the project.
  5. Get an agreement.  A request is not an agreement. Be sure to get a clear yes to your request to deliver expected results. Every defined expectation needs to end with, “Can I count on you?”
  6. Clarify support requirements. Aside from a lack of understanding the expectations, people fail to perform as expected when they lack the required skill or capacity. Leaders are accountable to assess workplace competencies and ensure adequate resources are available. Ensure the person you have expectations of feels supported.
  7. Identify consequences. Clarify what the results will be for delivering on your promises – to the individual and to the organization. What’s important to the individual? What’s important to the organization? Negotiate a win-win relationship. And sometimes, especially if you’ve made a mistake around fit, help people make a career decision and move on from their role.
  8. Have an evergreen plan. Map out a process for keeping your agreements to each other current and useful. How often do you need to meet to review expectations? Be sure to have a clear process for tracking and measuring success and how you will discuss it when your expectations of each other are not being met.
When you are promoted, you don’t get more power, you get more accountability to assess and implement the accountability process. Any accountability problem on your team is corrected by being accountable. Just as blame is never a good strategy, pleading for more accountability isn’t the answer either. Those who develop self-awareness, clarity, empathy, and courage to have the tough conversations will create powerful solutions, build winning teams, and create workplaces where people are inspired.
If you want to be an authentic leader that people want to work with, shift your mindset from blame to ownership, assess the gaps, and practice filling the gaps with these eight strategies. You’ll drive better results, make lasting impactful change, reduce your frustration, and create unstoppable workplaces.

Stop Evaluating People and Start Holding Them Accountable

In recent months, smart companies are finally seeing the futility of the old, outdated rule-based, bureaucratic “evaluation systems” of performance management. Many organizations I work with are abolishing their “rank and yank” systems that assign employees a performance score relative to their peers, while punishing or firing those with low grades. Other organizations are wisely rethinking their practices. Whether you agree or disagree with UCLA researcher Samuel Culbert’s assessment that performance reviews are “a curse on corporate America,” it’s nonetheless clear that performance reviews and evaluations are finally losing their appeal.

Why Performance Management Fails

First, the world has changed. Today’s employees want open communication and collaboration with their peers and with their bosses. They want partnerships, not parents. Today’s employees are also far more apt to want to know more immediately how they are doing and if they are meeting expectations and heading in the right direction. The world isn’t on an annual cycle any more for anything.

Second, being evaluated is demeaning. It’s based on an outdated parental, parent/child model of supervision that is founded on the belief that because a person is given a title they have authority over people. What right does anyone have to evaluate another person? No wonder performance reviews breed all kinds of unnecessary fear, resentment, and resistance. Leadership today is about service, not submission, supervision, and self-centeredness.

Third, if organizations want to develop highly engaged, contributing performers, managers must be equipped to coach and empower them. Today’s workers don’t see their managers as experts in specific subject areas the way their predecessors did. After all, the information they think they need is readily available to them online. Instead, they look to their managers for coaching and mentorship and find purpose through learning, contributing, and growing on the job.

The truth is that employees don’t need annual performance reviews to know how they stack up against their peers. Companies need to stop merely managing performance and start actually developing it.

The Alternative: Accountability Agreements

Instead of evaluating people, start holding them accountable. Here’s how:

Step 1. Build trust. Accountability without trust is compliance. Make the connection. Be trustworthy. Keep your promises. Be accountable. Genuinely invest in people lives. Be interested in what matters to them, what motivates them, and how you can support them to grow. People need to feel safe so they can be honest without fear of punishment. The key is not just walking around; it is opening up, paying attention, and being in touch. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Step 2. Engage. Accountability without passion is drudgery. Do all you can to help and coach your employees to find their unique abilities, passion, and goals and how work fits into the context of their life. Be sure you have done everything you can to help them find a fit. Fit people; don’t fix people. Stay away from evaluating people and focus on how to support each other to grow and achieve clearly defined success.

Step 3. Clarify Expectations. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. People need to be clear about what is expected and how success is defined. Clarify operational (competency) expectations, as well as describing in behavioral terms the kind attitude that is required and what results are promised. Before you make an agreement, be sure the willingness, the resources, and the capabilities are in place.

Step 4. Clarify Agreements. A request is not an agreement. If you want to hold someone accountable, you must get their full 100% agreement. If you don’t get an agreement to a required request, then go to Step 6.

Step 5. Clarify Support Requirements. To be committed and engaged, people need to feel that they can talk openly about the support they require to achieve their accountabilities. They need to feel that you are committed to do all you can to help them find the resources and capabilities to do their job and grow in the process. What support is needed? Your employee’s negotiated support requirements will be your accountability to them. The support requirements of your employees will be their accountabilities to you.

Step 6. Clarify Consequences. With no consequences there will be no accountabilities. Always start with positive consequences (motivators). Motivators are the internal or external results of delivering on your accountabilities. Motivators are meant to inspire you to achieve your accountabilities. If these don’t get the job done, then go to negative consequences.

Step 7. Follow up. Follow up means a clear understanding of a plan for follow-through, including how often you need to meet and with whom to ensure that you hold yourself and each other accountable for honoring the promises you have made to each other.