the ceo magazine, accountability,
Marlene Chism, Author, No-Drama Leadership: How Enlightened Leaders Transform Culture in the Workplace

A CEO once told me during a coaching session to discuss unusually high turnover, “We have a high accountability culture and some people just don’t like being held accountable.” One reason accountability does not work is because accountability can be used improperly: as a tool for punishment rather than a means of measuring results. 

Often the problem is not one of accountability but a problem of responsibility. We use those words interchangeably, but they actually have very different meanings.

Responsibility is about ownership. And, responsibility is about the commitment: the ownership of the task, project, or job.

When the employee takes ownership they want to be successful and they are eager to measure their results in order to course-correct. Ownership is about the heart.

In contrast, accountability is about the head. It’s about measuring results.

Both heart and head must work together to get the best results. One without the other creates a culture problem.

If a leader experiences problems in a particular department, the problem may be more about responsibility than accountability. One way to identify problems related to responsibility in an employee is to listen for these phrases:

  • “That’s what everyone else was doing.”
  • “I was just following orders.”
  • “I thought it didn’t really matter.”
  • “It’s not my job.”
  • “I forgot.”
  • I didn’t have time
  • “I didn’t know….”
  • “It was just too difficult.”

This kind of language that indicates a lack of responsibility is easy to recognize. It’s full of complaints, excuses, and regrets. The opposite is an individual who takes initiative and who takes ownership. Their language is different, too:

  • “I have an idea for improving the process”
  • “I’ve  uncovered a discrepancy”
  • “This seems important”
  • “Here’s a distinction”
  • “Here are the resources I need”
  • “My mistake; I’ll correct it”
  • “What will make this more efficient is…”
  • “I’m open to suggestions”
  • “What can I do to improve?”

Enlightened leaders know that if responsibility comes first, accountability simply helps keep people on track with their commitments. The distinction is powerful: when you take ownership first, and have the support, accountability is welcomed. When people don’t take ownership, they will devise ways to avoid accountability.

If you have to use accountability to gain compliance with people who haven’t taken ownership, don’t be surprised if people fudge on the numbers, avoiding the scale so to speak. It’s the difference between going on a diet and looking forward to getting on the scale, or just fasting the night before so the scale gives you good news the next morning.

Without ownership and responsibility it is difficult (if not impossible) to build a culture of accountability.  With no sense of ownership (responsibility) to begin with, accountability will be seen as a tool for punishment rather than a means of measurement.

Bottom line: Get the order right, and your organization will prosper and soar. 

About the Author

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker, and the author of two books:  No-Drama Leadership: How Enlightened Leaders Transform Culture in the Workplace (Bibliomotion 2015) and the author of Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011). Marlene’s passion is developing wise leaders and helping people discover, develop, and deliver their gifts to the world.


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