The Key to Creating Real Accountability

Accountability is the new watchword in just about every business. But what does it really mean?

Accountability means having to answer for one’s actions. The idea is compelling: if an employee knows that she will have to explain her actions to another person and that her actions will be rewarded or punished accordingly, typically that person will make an effort to act “better.” When business leaders chant the slogan “accountability,” what they are trying to do is spread the following message to employees: behave knowing in advance that you will have to explain yourself and that your actions will have consequences.

Tie Real Consequences to Employee Performance
In order to make accountability work, it’s not enough to chant the slogan around the office and hope people get it.Accountability

First, accountability works only as a management tool if the employee knows in advance that she will have to answer for her actions. If you tell an employee that she is accountable for her actions after she has taken action, it won’t affect that person’s behavior. Likewise, if you punish a person for her poor performance — without having told her in advance that her actions would be attached to punishments and rewards – it’s too late to affect behavior in that instance.

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Second, employees must trust and believe that there is a fair and accurate process for keeping track of their actions and tying their behavior to real consequences. The first thing you would want to know from your boss if they came in tomorrow morning and said, “If you do a great job today, I am going to give you a $1,000 bonus,” is, what exactly does a great job look like today?

After all, if you are going to be held accountable for your actions and there are going to be consequences for them, you would want to know exactly what is expected and required of you. You’d also want to know that someone is keeping a close eye on you all day so that they don’t miss it when you do a great job. And, finally, you’d want to ensure that your performance will be measured based on those expectations and requirements that were spelled out up front — and nothing else.

You need a fair and accurate process for tying real consequences to each employee’s real concrete actions. Remember: You are the key to making accountability real. You are the keeper of the process:

• Make sure that your employees know that they will have to explain their actions to you up close and often.

• Tie every employee’s real actions to real consequences — rewards and punishments.

• Make sure that your employees know in advance that you will hold them accountable for their actions so they can adjust their behavior accordingly before it’s too late.

• Focus on actions the employee can control.

• Be the boss who is known for holding people accountable.

• Raise your standards.

• Take charge on day is always day one.

• Separate your role as the boss from your personal relationships.

• If you have no authority, use influence.

• If you don’t have the expertise, act like a very shrewd client.

Sometimes all you have is the ability to ask people to explain or give an account of their actions. This type of interpersonal accountability in and of itself can be very powerful. That’s one of the reasons it is so important to build relationships of trust and confidence most when they have to give answers to you. You want them to care about what you think of them. You want them to have a hard time looking you in the face and saying, after you’ve spelled out clearly what is expected of them, “No. I didn’t do it.”

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world, a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website

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