Why Real Accountability Is So Uncommon

Managing by consequence may shape behavior, but you will never create discretionary effort with negative consequences. Stop trying to "hold people accountable," and instead promote ownership.

Janet is a young lady with lots of talent.  She is a middle manager with the potential to rise quickly in her organization.  The problem is that Janet’s boss, we’ll call him Tom, has been trying to “hold” Janet accountable.

Tom is like most managers and leaders in that he believes that to get his team to perform he needs to hold them accountable. That is what his leaders preach. That is how he is managed. In fact, that’s all Tom has ever experienced. It’s not surprising given that most companies—and Michael and I have worked with hundreds—practice accountability in this way.

Janet attended a workshop of ours, and when we began talking about accountability and how most leaders strive to hold their people accountable, Janet spoke up and shared her experience being on the receiving end of that approach. Listen to how Janet described her experience.

“I am so frustrated with my boss. Truthfully, I can’t stand him. He’s always trying to hold me accountable by creating negative consequences to force me to do what he thinks is best. It doesn’t make me want to perform, in fact, it has the opposite effect. I don’t want to even be in the same room with him. I give him the minimum effort just to keep him off my back. I’m capable of so much more. I’ve put in for a transfer. If that doesn’t come through, I’ll look for a new company.”

Keep in mind, Janet is not low-potential, she is extremely bright and very capable. And her response is not an anomaly; it’s actually quite common.

The problem for Tom, and Janet, is that this is what happens when a leader tries to hold their team members accountable. It actually creates the exact opposite of accountability; it creates minimal performance with collateral damage. I’m fairly certain that the first time Tom interacted with Janet in this way it didn’t instantly create the disdain that Janet holds for Tom. But over time this is how it often plays out.

The natural tendency for most of us when someone has tried to hold us accountable is to resist, to push back, to defend ourselves from what feels like an attack. And when the conversation ends, we are not left feeling like performing at our best, nor are we inspired to go the extra mile to accomplish our goals. More than likely, we are left feeling defeated, frustrated, angry and resentful that we were treated that way. Meanwhile the manager thinks they have done their job. This scene is then repeated over and ove and over again.

I want to make sure you caught what Janet said. She said, “I give him the minimum effort.” That is exactly what you get when you try to people accountable—you get the bare minimum.

We would argue that you can’t actually “hold” anyone accountable. We like to joke that you can hold a baby, or a bag of groceries, but you can’t hold someone accountable. When you peel that back, you uncover what it really means, which is to apply negative consequences when an employee doesn’t do what you want them to do. That’s not accountability, that’s management by consequence. Yes, consequences shape behavior, but you will never create discretionary effort with negative consequences. On the contrary, employees produce just enough effort to stop the consequences, and, as Janet’s story shows, this approach creates collateral damage that ranges from passive resistance to outright sabotage.

The problem is that accountability is not the application of consequences, but rather it is ownership—and you can’t force ownership through negative consequences. Holding people accountable creates a culture of blame and excuse making. It creates a culture of low performance and an entitlement mindset.

A Better Way

Holding employees accountable is unproductive, ineffective and detrimental in so many ways. But there is an alternative: instead try holding others CAPABLE.

Where holding accountable relies on consequences and threats, holding capable is essentially the opposite. The act of holding someone capable involves one individual, the leader in this context, confronting another individual, the employee, with their freedom and choices. This act recognizes that true accountability cannot be forced, but rather occurs as an inevitable outgrowth of freedom.

It redefines the role of leadership from treating employees as resources and managing, coercing and manipulating their behavior, to confronting employees with their freedom and responsibility to learn, develop and perform. It shifts the burden of performance from the manager to the employee. The manager is no longer responsible for the employees’ behavior and performance—the employee is, which is of course the truth of the situation. Individuals are responsible for their choices and their results.  The consequences that arise from performance come about as a clear and organic result of the choices made, a cause-effect relationship, not as a seemingly arbitrary decision made by the manager.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be performance consequences, and often the manager may apply them. But the employee understands that the consequences they experience are in alignment with, and result from, the choices they made. They are not seen as punishments delivered by management. In the end we all choose our consequences by the choices we make each and every day. Holding your people capable is not passive, it’s actually quite confrontative—but with freedom and choice versus consequences. It is subtle, but profoundly different.

When an organization holds their people capable it changes everything. The conversation changes. The relationship changes. The culture changes. Performance changes. With the acknowledgment of freedom comes true empowerment. Team members operate from a position of security and confidence. They are more creative, more motivated, more committed, more likely to seek input from others. When confronted with their freedom of choice employees put forth more effort, deliver higher quality of work, and consistently perform at a higher level. Promote ownership, stop trying to hold your people accountable, and instead hold them capable.


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